Contraception Is So Gay

December 12, 2007 § 13 Comments

The Vademicum for Confessors defines contraception this way:

The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.

As with pretty much any string of letters that says anything interesting, there are multiple possible interpretations of this definition, at least in principle.

In what follows, the context is an understanding of contraception as intrinsically immoral. That is, contraception as an intrinsically immoral act must be immoral as a chosen behavior independent of intentions (other than the intention in the “chosen” part of “chosen behavior”: that is, the behavior must be freely chosen); and also independent of consequences or circumstances. This context is set by the moral theology of the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendour, which says of itself that it is the first Magisterial document in the history of the Church to explicate in detail what it means for an act to be intrinsically immoral.

One possible interpretation is that contraception is an act utterly distinct from a sexual act. (I’m not entirely convinced that this is even coherent, but it is one line that gets taken). The idea here seems to be that contraception is something utterly distinct, and intrinsically immoral as a distinct act, but with no connection to the sex act itself: the contracepted sex act itself is not immoral.

Another interpretation is that contraception is a sex act: a sex act which the person has deliberately modified in a way which renders it pleasurable to the person but infertile.

It won’t surprise anyone who has followed recent discussions that I think the latter understanding is the right one. Undoubtedly that is in part because that understanding lines up best with my moral intuitions. The Church after all tells us that as something falling under the natural law sexual morality is accessible, at least in principle, to our reason. But it also makes the rest of Catholic teaching on sexual morality coherent rather than ad hoc. Immoral sexual acts in general then become of a piece: sodomy is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; masturbation is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; contraception is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; intercourse with a transgendered person is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; bestiality is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; etc. etc.

There are other consequences of this view that make it more coherent than alternative views, in my understanding.

In some circles it is controversial whether a rape victim is doing wrong in attempting to get the rapist to use a condom, for example. But on this understanding that isn’t an issue: a rape victim is not choosing a sexual act at all, so it isn’t possible for the rape victim to choose a disordered sexual act. She is just defending herself, if only partially, from an attack and violation.

The contrary view also makes a hash out of the use of hormonal medicines for non-contraceptive purposes by women who are not sexually active. Indeed, the use of any medicine which might impair fertility as a side-effect would be immoral, even when used by a celibate priest, because contraception is intrinsically immoral: immoral as a chosen behavior independent of the reason why that behavior is chosen.

So while it is always possible to interpret documents and statements in more than one way, I think the latter understanding – of contraception as a disordered sexual act rather than as an utterly distinct act standing on its own – is more orthodox, more rationally coherent, and more consistent with moral theology as taught by the Magisterium.

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§ 13 Responses to Contraception Is So Gay

  • William Luse says:

    <>…Veritatis Splendour, which says of itself that it is the first Magisterial document in the history of the Church to explicate in detail what it means for an act to be intrinsically immoral.<>When I read that in the document, it kind of startled me; and then I thought, no, that sounds about right, for why would a Pope have to explain such a thing to a Christian? It can only be the contumacious nature of our age that brought it forth.As to this: <>The idea here seems to be that contraception is something utterly distinct, and intrinsically immoral as a distinct act, but with no connection to the sex act itself..<> – Many seem to think of contraception as a disposition of the will <>only<>. But I’ve never understood the immorality in swallowing a pill. I guess swallowing it with the wrong intention can make it so, but the deal isn’t sealed until that intention is consummated.

  • Scott says:

    This seems similar to when you talked about running a red light and someone justifying it by breaking it down to the microscopic level. Like, “My chosen act was putting my foot on the gas pedal which is morally neutral, the result was going through a red light, so that’s double effect.” etc. Of course one could justify literally anything with that kind of logic-chopping.

  • Anonymous says:

    <>One of the consistent objections to the understanding I’ve articulated in the series of posts here, here, here, and most recently here is that the earlier act of getting a vasectomy, as preparation for a contracepted act of intercourse, is seen as utterly distinct from the actual sexual behavior which is later chosen. The idea seems to be that if you prepare for a wicked act and later wish that you hadn’t, actually performing the wicked act isn’t wicked — because you really, truly, genuinely wish it wasn’t. <>Zippy,That’s a straw man —The fact of the matter is that under the circumstances originally discussed:1. The man committed the vasectomy2. He goes to confession and repentsGiven the latter, why would future acts such as subsequent sexual intercourse with his wife become sinful?1. He is not <>deliberately<> (this being the very point you seem to keep neglecting) committing a contraceptive act in those subsequent instances.You even stated previously:<>We are always accountable for the consequences of our <>deliberate<> and free acts<>Which I agree —But, remember the word DELIBERATE — which is NOT the case here.The fact that this man became sterile is a consequence of a past sin, which he is already sorry for, confessed and, accordingly, has repented.2. Because of the nature of a vasectomy being virtually irreversible (as the undoing of which would be gravely dangerous to the life of the subject); his sterile state is actually a side-effect of a past sin and not the DELIBERATE act you seem to keep mistaking it as at the time of the actual subsequent acts of intercourse with his wife.– Aristocles

  • zippy says:

    <>< HREF="http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19751229_persona-humana_en.html" REL="nofollow">In this regard the Council declares<> that the moral goodness of the acts proper to conjugal life, acts which are ordered according to true human dignity, “does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives. <>It must be determined by objective standards.<> These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.<>[…]<>In reality, it is precisely the fundamental option which in the last resort defines a person’s moral disposition. <>But it can be completely changed by particular acts, especially when, as often happens, these have been prepared for by previous more superficial acts. Whatever the case, it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute mortal sin.<><>

  • This may be extratopical, but I’m curious how intrinsic immorality affects acts that, for want of a better phrase, are <>specifically<> Catholic. For example, I learned growing up that choosing to miss Mass on a weekend was a mortal sin, if it was possible to attend. Perhaps my CCD teacher was exaggerating, but is the sin in skipping mass intrinsic, or some other category? I’ve always been befuddled by the sin definitions that Catholics expect others to live by and the ones they don’t. (For example, it may be a sin to reject the divinity of Christ, but a priest would never advocate municipal laws to that effect. Priests have no problem advocating laws that deal with contraception and other sex acts, however, even though some of those acts are not considered to be sins by other religions.) Does the word “intrinsic” create a bright line?

  • zippy says:

    <>Perhaps my CCD teacher was exaggerating, but is the sin in skipping mass intrinsic, or some other category?<>A different category, the way I understand it. Attendance at sunday Mass is a matter of obedience of the juridical authority of canon law. There are exceptions: if one is sick, for example. Disobedience is mortally sinful under the usual conditions (full knowledge and consent), but “missing mass” is not <>intrinsically<> immoral: it is not immoral under all circumstances.Indeed it <>can’t<> be intrinsically immoral because it is a positive precept. Only certain negative precepts, <>prohibitions<> of certain behaviors as per se immoral, bind the conscience under all circumstances without exception.

  • […] involves the deliberate choice of a concrete behavior in violation of a negative moral precept: the mutilation of an ontologically real act.  NFP involves a choice to refrain from certain licit but not obligatory behaviors at certain […]

  • […] “contraceptive mentality”.  Contracepted sexual acts are immoral because they are unnatural sexual acts like sodomy: they involve using the human body in a manner contrary to its telos, contrary to the truth about […]

  • […] of sex; the latter are not.  Choosing natural intercourse is consistent with the telos of sex.  Choosing sodomy or condomistic sex isn’t. But Catholic consequentialists are always trying to conflate the deliberate choice of specific […]

  • […] lying is to speech as contraception is to sex: both involve the behavioral use of a natural faculty in a manner directly contrary to and […]

  • […] means carefully remaining uncommitted to anything in particular.  Except sodomy.  Oh and contraception, if you are cisgender.  For the time being, until you and your surgeon and your psychiatrist […]

  • […] is a kind of behavior: a kind of sexual behavior. A nun who wears a chastity belt is not choosing a sexual behavior; she […]

  • […] Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation of contraception. But that business about never choosing deliberately mutilated sexual behaviors is embarrassingly […]

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