Open to Life: A Definition

December 3, 2007 § 45 Comments

Apparently there was recently some hubbub about a rumor that some clerics in India were going to tell people that it is OK for married couples to use condoms sometimes if one of the spouses is HIV positive. In the combox there appears to be (as usual) multiple understandings of what “open to life” means as a description of a particular sexual act.

Let me suggest the following understanding: a sexual act is open to life when it is the kind of unmodified behavior in which pregnancy ordinarily occurs, when it does occur, unimpeded.

Notice that this understanding has nothing to do with intentions, expected outcomes, the actual state of the fertility of the pairing, etc. The sexual congress of a post-menopausal couple or an accidentally sterile couple is unequivocally open to life on this understanding. The sexual congress of a couple using NFP to limit pregnancies is unequivocally open to life on this understanding.

The sexual congress of a couple who has modified their act artificially, via the Pill, a condom, or any other form of artificial birth control, is just as unequivocally not open to life on this understanding — even if the reason for the artificial modification of the act has nothing to do with fertility.

Notice that Congolese nuns who take the Pill as a precaution against rape do not engage in sexual congress which is not open to life — because when a woman is raped she is not choosing to engage in sexual congress at all.

I backed in to this understanding by starting with the fact that contraception is intrinsically immoral. We know from Veritatis Splendour that when an act is intrinsically immoral it is immoral in the chosen behavior itself, independent of the intentions of the acting subject or the circumstances. So every intrinsically immoral act is immoral because of the kind of behavior it is, independent of intentions or expected outcomes. Contraception is immoral because it involves sexual congress which is not open to life; it follows from the intrinsic immorality of contraception that “sexual congress not open to life” must be understood as a kind of chosen behavior, independent of expected outcomes.

So for sexual congress to be “open to life” in the pertinent sense means that the sexual behavior must be that kind of sexual behavior which ordinarily may result in pregnancy, performed in such a way as would not artificially impede pregnancy. Whether a particular instance of such marital congress is or is not expected to actually result in pregnancy is quite irrelevant.

(HT: Cordelia’s Shoes)

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§ 45 Responses to Open to Life: A Definition

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Do you, in point of fact, consider it morally licit for nuns to take birth control pills because they expect to be or are afraid of being raped?

  • zippy says:

    Do you, in point of fact, consider it morally licit for nuns to take birth control pills because they expect to be or are afraid of being raped?

    I am inclined to say that I think it is morally illicit because of the abortaficient nature of the Pill (something as far as I know not known in the 1950’s, the “when” in which rumor places the use of the Pill by Congolese nuns). What I am pretty certain of is that if it is immoral, its immorality rests upon a different principle than the intrinsic immorality of non-abortaficient contraception. “Contraception without sexual activity” is in my understanding a contradiction in terms (as long as formal cooperation with intended future sexual activity isn’t ruled out by the “without”), and a rape victim is not choosing sexual activity.

    Another caveat is that I think it is possible for contraceptive intent to render immoral an act which is not intrinsically immoral (in the behavior itself). In my view disordered intentions (and/or imprudence) may obtain when it comes to NFP triumphalism. The NFP stuff is more “out on a limb” in the sense that I don’t take my understanding to be the Church’s well-defined understanding (I don’t think the Church has articulated one), whereas I do think that my understanding of contraception corresponds to the Church’s fairly well-defined understanding.

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy–If we can consider the fate of the HIV-infected Indians for a moment, by what draconian morality is it preferable to have a woman infected by HIV, while simultaneously being impregnated, so that in all likelihood both she <>and her baby<> are handed a death sentence? I suppose you think that she can just make a moue and say “No thank you” when her husband comes, demanding sex? But if, alas, he should be displeased with that arrangement, she could move out into the streets, become a prostitute, where she would be forced to use condoms anyway, and probably still contract HIV anyway. <>But the honor of teleology would remain intact<>!There is a conflict here in my mind (although I’m sure not in yours) between the letter and the spirit.

  • zippy says:

    Everybody plays the What If Monkey in support of his favorite sins, Rodak. For some of the people I argue with a favorite sin is torture. For you one of them is contraception. Doing the right thing is a Cross, yes. Sympathy and prayer for those who bear crosses – we each have our own – is a basic requirement of Christian charity. That doesn’t license anyone to do evil though.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I don’t want to sound in any way like a smart aleck here, but the diaphragm is purely a barrier method. If a woman afraid of rape went about wearing a diaphragm just in case, there would seem to be no objections that could be raised against it just given what has been said so far. Seems odd to me, though, for a Catholic position.

  • Rodak says:

    “That doesn’t license anyone to do evil though.”It seems that the persons in the situtation under discussion are faced with choosing between evils. I think that violating the “teleology of the sex act” is the lesser evil of the various choices here. I think that, in effect, not wearing the condom is in order to avoid not being open to life is committing evil that good might result.

  • Rodak says:

    Correction:I think that, in effect, not wearing the condom in order to avoid not being “open to life” is committing evil that good might result.

  • zippy says:

    <>It seems that the persons in the situtation under discussion are faced with choosing between evils.<>That is what every consequentialist who doesn’t take Romans 3:8 seriously thinks.<>I think that, in effect, [choosing to engage in sex while] not wearing the condom in order to avoid not being “open to life” is committing evil that good might result.<>Just like the Jack Bauer republicans think that not torturing the terrorist to stop the ticking bomb is “committing evil that good might result.”

  • Rodak says:

    ‘Just like the Jack Bauer republicans think that not torturing the terrorist to stop the ticking bomb is “committing evil that good might result.”‘I see your point. Except that there is nobody wholly innocent immediately involved in your Jack Bauer scenario, unlike the case of the Indian woman and her child.

  • M.Z. says:

    It may be possible to arrive at a position that allows condom use in the circumstance described. It will not however be because definitionally the act will be open to life. I’m inclined against allowance.

  • zippy says:

    <>Except that there is nobody wholly innocent immediately involved in your Jack Bauer scenario, unlike the case of the Indian woman and her child.<>Other than all those people about to get blown up.

  • brandon field says:

    With regard to your old post, I still think that the continuity of your ordinate axis between “nookie” vs. “abstinence” is invalid, in the same way < HREF="http://disputations.blogspot.com/2006_10_01_archive.html#116006035096410358" REL="nofollow">this post<> describes it. (When you brought in the torture-nfp connection in your response to Rob, that made the connection to me).But, I really wanted to post to say that I appreciated when you said: “The sexual congress of a couple using NFP to limit pregnancies is unequivocally open to life on this understanding.” I think that we actually have a very similar understanding of the licitness of NFP, but I disagree with your way of presenting it, more than your content. Did I mention that I spoke to John and Shelia Kippley this summer about this topic of debate? I ran into them at the LLLI conference. John directed me to his website, but since their tack is so much from the other side (of convincing people that NFP <>works<>) that the conversation was not as fruitful as I had hoped. I had a little trouble giving a summary of our argument in the crowded exhibit hall with an over-tired 3-year-old in tow.

  • Rodak says:

    “Other than all those people about to get blown up.”That’s why I said “immediately.” The bomb could be a dud. It could be independently discovered and disarmed. It could never happen. In the other scenario, the wife is injured immediately, in at least one of several diffenent ways, unless her husband uses a condom.

  • zippy says:

    <>I still think that the continuity of your ordinate axis between “nookie” vs. “abstinence” is invalid…<>I don’t think it needs to be continuous though (and I certainly agree that it isn’t: what is being plotted is discrete acts).Whatever else may be said, though, NFP is definitely not the same <>kind of thing<> morally as contraception-as-behavior. I think the overlap in intentions and consequences – which also do have moral implications – is what confuses the matter for most people (that is, for most people who find it confusing).

  • zippy says:

    <>The bomb could be a dud.<>The virus might not be transmitted. The woman might choose not to engage in sex. There might be < HREF="http://cordeliashoes.blogspot.com/2007/12/torture-what-if-monkeys-and-27-ninjas.html" REL="nofollow">27 ninjas<>.

  • brandon field says:

    Rob,<>I suppose you think that she can just make a moue and say “No thank you” when her husband comes, demanding sex? But if, alas, he should be displeased with that arrangement, she could move out into the streets<>.. and 27 ninjas might attack her.By the same logic, it should be argued that a husband should use boxing gloves when he is beating his wife so as to not inflict as much pain. Because demanding sex of a wife — even with marital license, and especially with there is the HIV issue — is a form of abuse. So it seems that problem is not that you should allow husbands to beat their wifes with boxing gloves instead of closed fists, but rather that the abusive situation should be resolved.

  • Rodak says:

    Brandon–We’re talking Calcutta here, not Des Moines. This stuff is really happening, right now, to real people. Changing the entire society of India is not an expedient plan in this instance.And the 27 ninjas bit is a cop-out.

  • zippy says:

    If a woman afraid of rape went about wearing a diaphragm just in case, there would seem to be no objections that could be raised against it just given what has been said so far.

    I think that is exactly right. As long as she doesn’t choose to engage in a sex act with the diaphragm in she isn’t contracepting. And being raped isn’t choosing to engage in a sex act.

  • zippy says:

    <>And the 27 ninjas bit is a cop-out.<>So if there were ticking time bombs really going off regularly it would be OK to torture prisoners?Maybe the 27 ninjas should pass out condoms while they waterboard terrorists.

  • Silly Interloper says:

    <>And the 27 ninjas bit is a cop-out.<>What if 27 Ninjas got together and brainstormed for a reasonable scenario to prove your point? Certainly one of them would come up with relevant conditions. Either that or they would kill you. I’m really not sure which is more likely, but I’d personally take the risk.

  • Rodak says:

    “Maybe the 27 ninjas should pass out condoms while they waterboard terrorists.”If it would stop them from making “B” movies, I’m all for it.

  • Hmmm. Before I reply, I need to get this “sexual congress” imagery outta my head …

  • William Luse says:

    Yeah, Jeff, one more kid and that’ll be how many? (Just kidding, old man, I’m behind you 100%.)<>Except that there is nobody wholly innocent immediately involved in your Jack Bauer scenario, unlike the case of the Indian woman and her child.<>“Other than all those people about to get blown up.”Actually, Zippy, isn’t the innocence of all those people irrelevant? The HIV infected husband of the Indian woman is the one who would wear the condom (should he so deign), and so I suppose if she accedes to this she is, under some duress, a participant in the evil, to which she yields in the hope that her husband will not pass the virus to her, that the two of them will not then pass it to a future child or, if she is early on in pregnancy, to the one she now carries. She and her husband, especially the latter, are parallel to the torturer who would likewise employ an evil means to a good end (saving all those people). But the parallel to the innocent child is not all those people, but the man about to be tortured. The pro-torturers cannot conceive of a Khalid Sheik Mohammed as an innocent, but by the definition of the rules of war, he is. Innocence does not always depend on the state of one’s soul, but on one’s helplessness.

  • <>a sexual act is open to life when it is the kind of unmodified behavior in which pregnancy ordinarily occurs, when it does occur, unimpeded. […] this understanding has nothing to do with intentions, expected outcomes, the actual state of the fertility of the pairing, etc.<>A few observations:This definition doesn’t make a distinction between knowingly having sex with a woman who has had a hysterectomy for dire medical reasons, versus knowingly having sex with a woman who has had a hysterectomy for contraceptive reasons.Perhaps that’s intended: the hysterectomy is a separate act, a potential sin depending on intent, but once it’s done, for whatever reason, all future sex acts are equal?However, it would seem that knowingly having sex with a woman who has had a contraceptive hysterectomy is the same “act” as knowingly having sex with a woman who has taken the pill, since intentions, expected outcomes, etc., are irrelevant to this understanding?

  • zippy says:

    Bill:<>Actually, Zippy, isn’t the innocence of all those people irrelevant?<>Yes. I was just answering Rodak’s manifestly false assertion that the fate of innocents doesn’t hang in the balance in the Jack Baeur scenario.

  • zippy says:

    Phil:<>However, it would seem that knowingly having sex with a woman who has had a contraceptive hysterectomy is the same “act” as knowingly having sex with a woman who has taken the pill, since intentions, expected outcomes, etc., are irrelevant to this understanding?<>Well done — that is <>exactly<> where casuistry becomes difficult on this understanding. The way I approach an answer is to recognize that an intentional self-mutilation (whether temporary or permanent) is a morally different object from an accidental injury or incapacity. I suspect (suspician not firm conviction), for example, contra < HREF="https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2005/04/intentional-wishful-thinking.html" REL="nofollow">Jimmy Akin<>, that once a man intentionally sterilizes himself it becomes impossible for him to ever again licitly engage in sexual congress barring a successful reversal of his self-mutilation. This isn’t a matter of the genetic fallacy, but rather is simple recognition that the results of our acts are themselves moral objects relevant to future acts. For example a marriage is the result of a past act which is morally relevant to future acts. So simply shouting “genetic fallacy” while waving the hands, as some do when addressing this subject, is a non-starter.

  • brandon field says:

    <>once a man intentionally sterilizes himself it becomes impossible for him to ever again licitly engage in sexual congress barring a successful reversal of his self-mutilation.<>I would agree with you, because this is identical to a man who knowingly gets married, who cannot marry another without successful annulment. I didn’t read Jimmy’s explanation of his opinion, but I can’t see how it could be otherwise.

  • zippy says:

    <>I didn’t read Jimmy’s explanation of his opinion, …<>Mr. Akin’s invocation of the genetic fallacy is itself a fallacious argument as already explained. < HREF="http://www.jimmyakin.org/2004/12/yeowtch.html" REL="nofollow">He wrote<>:<>“To suppose that there is continuing sin in having marital relations after being sterilized and then repenting involves committing the genetic fallacy…”<>What is worse though is that he contends that the liciety of sex after intentional sterilization, provided one regrets having done it and goes to confession, is a “settled point of Catholic moral theology” as if his faulty argument were settled Church doctrine. I am not aware of the Church having ever said anything on the matter specifically, but I’m pretty sure my present understanding is at least plausible, and I’m <>certain<> that Mr. Akin’s argument is superficial and wrong.

  • <>I would agree with you, because this is identical to a man who knowingly gets married, who cannot marry another without successful annulment.<>The difference may be that annulment is a Catholic…”process” (for want of a better word). Annulment is not a sacrament but it pertains specifically to a sacrament. Catholicism has a mechanism for determining whether a marriage really existed. Further, the death of a spouse makes potential future sexual relations licit. Catholicism contains no such mechanism to reverse a vasectomy. Under your scenario, a man who obtains an irreversible vasectomy while he is an agnostic, then converts to Catholicism, is unable to ever get married in the Church and partake of the unitive function of sexual congress. The same, it seems, would be true for a woman who elects for a contraceptive hysterectomy. Zippy draws a moral line between a man who is naturally sterile and a man who elects to become sterile. This suggests that his confession can never be “enough,” that the sin of his original choice for a vasectomy lingers even after the sacrament of reconciliation. Are there other such “lingering” sins in Catholic doctrine?

  • zippy says:

    <>This suggests that his confession can never be “enough,” that the sin of his original choice for a vasectomy lingers even after the sacrament of reconciliation.<>It is merely a matter of the state of the world one has brought about. Another example would be becoming a father (either in or out of wedlock), or stealing. One cannot “reverse” this and thereby eliminate all temopral responsibilities which arise from it through the Sacrament of Confession: one remains a father with all that entails, or one remains obligated to make restitution of what was stolen. Confession repairs the eternal breach with God brought about by one’s sins; it has no effect in itself on either (1) the state of the world and one’s responsibilities in it brought about by one’s sins, or (2) temporal punishments due to sin.<>Are there other such “lingering” sins in Catholic doctrine?<>In Catholic theology <>all<> sins “linger” in the two senses I expressed above. One can remit the temporal punishment due to sin (that is, Purgatory) by doing what it takes to get an <>indulgence<> (that is what indulgences are). However, the former category of things – whether one has become a father, or whether one owe’s restitution for something stolen, etc – are not something which gets unmade by either the sacrament or an indulgence.

  • zippy says:

    Oh, and by the way, Catholicism contains no method by which to reverse a valid marriage either.

  • M.Z. says:

    In the case of direct sterilization, the best explanation I can tease out amounts to an adoption of economia. In exchange for perpetual pennance, one can be reconciled and allowed to continue the behavior as if the impediment didn’t exist. In my efforts to tease out the theology behind this pastoral counsel, I have been unsuccessful. The only thing I really do know is that there are a number of priests who believe it is within their power to grant this. It does seem very close to the economia allowing Eastern Orthodox couples to wed after divorce. Obviously, Eastern rite Catholics in union with Rome have no such privelege.

  • brandon field says:

    <>Under your scenario, a man who obtains an irreversible vasectomy while he is an agnostic, then converts to Catholicism, is unable to ever get married in the Church and partake of the unitive function of sexual congress.<>In olden days, such a man would be called an eunuch, and no, eunuchs were not allowed to be married.A man who is impotent, or sterile for other reasons, is also not allowed to marry. I’m not sure, but I thought impotence was a barrier from being a priest once. I’m not sure if it still is or not.

  • zippy says:

    <>A man who is impotent, or sterile for other reasons, is also not allowed to marry.<>Nota bene: a man who is impotent is not allowed to marry, because he is incapable of consummating his marriage. But impotence and sterility are not the same thing: natural (that is, accidental) sterility is not an impediment to marriage.

  • Is it a sin for a woman who is about to be raped to request that her attacker wear a condom? Does it make a difference if she knows him, for certain, to be free of sexually transmitted diseases?Is such a woman different from a nun who takes birth control, because she knows that she will be raped, while the nuns do not?

  • zippy says:

    <>Is it a sin for a woman who is about to be raped to request that her attacker wear a condom?<>Tough to say for sure, though I am inclined to say not. Being morally certain that someone else is going to perpetrate a crime, and attempting to mitigate the consequences of that crime, isn’t the same thing as choosing for the crime to be committed. At what point cooperation with a rapist becomes consent as a moral matter is a difficult question. One can imagine at least in theory a woman who was not choosing to engage in sex but who was ambivalent to it, for example — I expect that especially along the lines of “date rape” that may be not merely theoretical. But in a clear case of forced rape I doubt that a desperate attempt to get the attacker to don a condom is illicit. I could be convinced otherwise.

  • Oh, I wasn’t suggesting that the woman requesting a condom becomes complicit in the sin of rape or the act of sex. Just in the act of rendering a specific sex act (the rape) “closed to life.”If a young couple have sex on their first date, absent force or marital vows, that would be considered a sin. If they also use a condom, would that be a separate sin? Or, would it be doctrinally accurate to say, “If you’re having unmarried sex, you might as well wear a condom, because you’re already committing a sin?”And, if the sex act and the use of a condom are two separate actions/sins in one scenario, is it possible that they’re also two separate actions in another? The Church certainly doesn’t support abortion in instances of rape, so is it correct to surmise that the Church doesn’t support birth control in instances of rape?

  • brandon field says:

    <>But impotence and sterility are not the same thing: natural (that is, accidental) sterility is not an impediment to marriage.<>True. My point was to say that there is nothing in the Catholic understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage that makes it some sort of civil right.

  • zippy says:

    <>If they also use a condom, would that be a separate sin?<>I don’t think that is quite right. I think the sin of contraception is the performance of a mutilated sex act, not “the performance of a sex act” and, separately, “mutilating a sex act”. (As to which would be more grave, I would be inclined to think that performing a non-mutilated sex act would be less grave, though still mortally sinful, than performing a mutilated sex act).

  • Is an elective vasectomy a sin, even if the man doesn’t actually plan to have sex? (Say, his wife has died, and he doesn’t really think he’ll get married or that he’ll have non-marital sex, but he does it “just in case.”) Was the vasectomy a sin before he chooses to have sex, or does it become a sin at the time that he does choose to have sex? And, if not the latter, then aren’t there two separate sins in this situation–choosing contraception, and choosing sex?Is there a difference between a nun walking around with a diaphragm and a nun having a hysterectomy, if her intention in both cases is to prevent the consequences of rape?Perhaps we’re unwilling to acknowledge that a rape victim choosing contraception is sinning because, even if it’s doctrinally correct, it’s a pretty horrible thing to say…

  • zippy says:

    <>Is an elective vasectomy a sin, even if the man doesn’t actually plan to have sex?<>In my current understanding: As a self-mutilation, yes. As a contracepted sex act no, because there is no chosen sex act at all — not even formal cooperation with a future putative one.<>Perhaps we’re unwilling to acknowledge that a rape victim choosing contraception is sinning because, even if it’s doctrinally correct, it’s a pretty horrible thing to say…<>That’s actually made me chuckle a bit, because my own expectation is that my usual conservative and reactionary fellow travelers are likely to cry foul in the opposite direction. Horrors! Zippy thinks it is OK for nuns to use some non-abortaficient temporary contraceptive methods to prevent pregnancy-by-rape as long as they don’t plan to actually intentionally choose to have sex! Personally I don’t think it would be a horrible thing to say that doing so is immoral: if it is wrong it is wrong, and no amount of appropriate empathy with the rape victim can make it right, though it can certainly mitigate personal culpability. I just don’t happen to think it is correct.

  • So, to clarify, vasectomy is wrong as self-mutilation. But then, if that fellow–who had his vasectomy not actually intending to have sex–chooses to marry and have sex, is the sex act “open to life” or closed to life?I think a reasonable person would have no problem calling the statement “rape victims are sinning if they ask their attacker to wear a condom” horrible. And I’m just a moderate; say it in a roomful of feminist comm. studies grad students if you really want to get a reaction. If I had a priest who really pounded that idea home in sermons every week, I’d see that as a pretty good reason to switch parishes, or convert. Fortunately, that point is moot if it’s not doctrinally correct.

  • zippy says:

    <>But then, if that fellow–who had his vasectomy not actually intending to have sex–chooses to marry and have sex, is the sex act “open to life” or closed to life?<>Closed, it seems to me. Again, it doesn’t matter (in the sense of making the difference between the act being good and the act being evil) <>why<> the person mutilates the sex act in a way which makes it infertile; it only matters <>that<> he does. (It doesn’t matter in this case any more than it matters <>why<> someone has an abortion).<>I think a reasonable person would have no problem calling the statement “rape victims are sinning if they ask their attacker to wear a condom” horrible.<>De gustibus. I don’t think it is the sort of thing (if true) to shout from the pulpit; but to affirm in casuistry when someone is testing the boundaries of morality, no problem. Though I have no doubt that PC college students and instructors would, as you say, get the vapors over it.

  • […] in the same sense as removing a healthy organ.  It bears passing similarity to the situation when nuns who are at risk of rape use contraception.   But I am uneasy with any definite, categorical conclusion in this far corner of the casuistry; […]

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