The tyranny of the subjective and “contraceptive mentality”

September 13, 2013 § 16 Comments

Hence, those many people are in error who today assert that one can find neither in human nature nor in the revealed law any absolute and immutable norm to serve for particular actions other than the one which expresses itself in the general law of charity and respect for human dignity.  – Persona Humana

Modern Christians are very enamored with the notion of doing things with a pure heart.  There isn’t anything wrong with that in proper context.  But like all truths it can be emphasized so much that it takes up all the oxygen in the room, building a tower of lies by policing the intellect and crowding out essential truths.

Thus the overemphasis on “contraceptive mentality”.  Contraceptive mentality is something that lives in the subjective world of our minds, and in the subjective world of our minds we reign supreme.  No other person can tell us what takes place there as we live our omnipotent lives in the subjective realm, projecting ourselves as the tragic hero on the IMAX movie screens of our interior existence.  Furthermore we can assume what we like about the subjective states of other people without the possibility of falsification, creating movies for them in our own minds, movies which follow our own script.  Modern Catholics and Protestants alike tend to treat subjective “mentality” as the fundamental playground for morality.  When juxtaposing contraception and “natural family planning” the subjective playground is simply assumed, and dispute rages over whether the latter can or need not be employed with the same subjective “contraceptive mentality” as the former.

This overemphasis of the subjective interior life over choices of objective behavior turns morality upside down, and the implications are far-reaching.

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.” – Persona Humana

Contracepted sexual acts are not immoral first and foremost because of a subjective “contraceptive mentality”.  Contracepted sexual acts are immoral because they are unnatural sexual behaviors like sodomy: they involve using the human body in a manner contrary to its telos, contrary to the truth about Man and his fundamental nature and meaning as an embodied sexual person.

That of course doesn’t mean that subjective “mentality” (what moral theologians sometimes call the “fundamental option”) and whatnot make no difference or are unimportant.  But it means that people who attempt to separate them from the choice of specific concrete acts – and choices to refrain from acting, especially in areas where our moral discretion as rational men made in the Imago Dei is wide – are making a basic error in their moral reasoning.

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. – Persona Humana

So now that we understand that what makes contraception always gravely morally wrong – intrinsically immoral – is not “mentality” as something distinct from behaviors but rather the choice of concrete behaviors contrary to the telos of the marital act, we can conclude:

The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.”  It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.  – Humanae Vitae

§ 16 Responses to The tyranny of the subjective and “contraceptive mentality”

  • I’m an adult convert to the faith. It must have been my second or third confession, but I got into a heated argument with the priest inside the confessional. He said that my sins weren’t really sins and my immortal soul wasn’t in any grave danger so long as my fundamental option was still oriented toward God, or something. Even with the baptismal water barely dried from behind my ears, that struck me as profoundly wrong. Thank God for Veritatis Splendor.

  • Zippy says:

    Beefy Levinson:
    Thank God for Veritatis Splendor.

    Amen, brother. As a cradle Catholic I was not always fortunate enough to know where the felt banners stopped and the truth began.

  • Scott W. says:

    Just to clarify for readers. Fundamental Option is an idea among some modern Catholics that says that you can’t really commit a mortal sin unless you have a deliberate and formal intention to defy and offend God along with your evil act. So, for example, if one would were about to commit adultery, he would only be in danger of damnation if in his mind or out loud declared something to the effect of, “With this evil act, which I fully understand is in full violation of Your Commandments, I hereby defy you God and Your law!”

    This idea of course is pure crap. Here is Cardinal Arinze dismantling it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQ8CDmXYugw

  • Proph says:

    I didn’t know there were still priests who talked/thought like that. Was he, maybe, on the older side?

  • Mike T says:

    I’d like a little clarification here:

    Is the entirety of the RCC’s objection to artificial contraception that it “mutilates the sexual act” or is part of it that one is desiring to have sterile sex for pleasure with the risk of conception extremely remote?

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    Mutilation of the sexual act (my words) is what makes contraception intrinsically immoral, but it isn’t the whole story of right conduct by any means. I posted an excerpt from the Address to Midwives (an RCC document) that I think does a good job summarizing how non-mutilated sexual acts can be misused (analogous to misusing one’s rightful property by failing to give alms) in the other thread.

  • Mike T says:

    Reading that it seems like according to the RCC if you engage in NFP for the purpose of enjoying sex with a highly diminished risk of pregnancy you are running afoul of God’s purpose in sex. It may not be the same sort of issue as artificial contraception, but it is certainly part of the general issue of violating God’s purpose in human sexuality.

    I suppose it is possible to be open to children, avoid the most fertile time and have a lot of sex otherwise and not be “contraceptive in intent,” but it would be prudent to ask someone claiming that whether they really feel good justifying that before God because it’s so close to the edge.

  • Zippy says:

    At issue is how serious the reasons are that they have. To continue the alms parallel, someone with massive medical bills probably has serious reasons to postpone alms until times get better. That doesn’t make it a sin to have ice cream for dessert now and then, if probably not as frequently as on sunnier days.

  • Chris says:

    From the other sider of the Tiber (we have cookies) and on reviewing of Persona Humana, it’s an argument that there are things that are real and objective and that certain acts are evil — regardless of intentions. No argument: this was something all Christians agreed with: our doctrinal splits were about communion and the role of the church, not evil. The reformers and conter reformers were all to familiar with evil in all its forms (Thirty year war and Cardinal Richelau, anyone?)

    If you steal to feed your family, you are still a thief.

    What impressed me was that this was written in 1975. The Magisterium, to it’s credit, has held firm and preached truth. But I’m afraid that the churchians exist not merely among us Prots,

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  • […] take a contracepted sex act.  The specific difference between sex acts generally and contracepted sex acts in particular is that the latter have been modified in some way which blocks natural […]

  • […] If this doesn’t bring to mind the progressive “primacy of conscience” maneuver, it certainly should.  If you close your eyes tight, really really believe that what you are doing (or what you support doing) is not morally wrong, and click your heels together three times, then it isn’t morally wrong!  You are still a good person!  Your fundamental option is still oriented toward God because you say so, dammit, and nobody is in a position to deny your purely subjective self assessment. […]

  • […] Reductionist post cartesians think of actions and motivations as separable things, each of which can exist on its own.  They are like lego blocks which can be arranged and rearranged arbitrarily: for a given actual concrete deliberately chosen action, any one of an arbitrary number of motivations may apply. Morality then becomes reducible to nothing but ‘motivation’, understood as an entirely subjective phenomenon. […]

  • […] based on objective standards: the notion of ‘subjectifying’ morality by confining moral judgment to someone’s ‘heart being in the right place’ rests on false, […]

  • […] practice. Those sweet preciously naive little devout medieval hearts were in the right place, and making sure our hearts are in the right place is the lesson we can still learn from the Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation […]

  • […] human being orchestrates the drama of his subjective life in the IMAX theater of the mind. This radical disconnect between physics and subjective experience produces a purely subjective concept of value: […]

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