Fertile discussion

May 9, 2014 § 78 Comments

In the comments below, CJ writes:

Also, (I’d like Zippy or someone else to correct me if I’m wrong), but even if a woman had a hysterectomy to remove, say, a cancerous uterus, the surgery itself would be licit under double effect, but subsequent intercourse would be sinful.

As with many things I think the Catholic answer is that there is no one-and-done Catholic answer: that is, there is a range of theological opinion which is consistent with doctrine.  That doesn’t mean that there is no right answer.  It just means that the Magisterium of the Church has not officially defined, as doctrine, specifically what the right answer happens to be in the detailed cases under consideration.

My own personal view encompasses a “range within the range” (with all the usual caveats: I’m just some guy who happens to be Catholic). My views are considered pretty hard core, but they are not as ‘strict’ as what CJ suggests. In my view the principle of double-effect for the most part does not enter into it, since we are working with questions of intrinsic morality.  The principle of double-effect only apples to questions of extrinsic morality, when the behaviors in question are morally neutral in themselves qua chosen behaviors.

A person can be dealing with any of three different factual situations: (1) naturally fertile organs, (2) accidentally infertile/diseased/mutilated organs, or (3) deliberately mutilated organs which were healthy prior to the deliberate mutilation. “Accidental” here refers to the choices of the person whose body it is: forced sterilization by a government or whatever is ‘accidental’ in the morally pertinent sense, as is disease and, uh, accident.  It is important to keep in mind that a purely physical description of the objective physical facts fails to encompass a moral description of the morally pertinent objective facts.

Case (2) breaks down further, because in some cases (2a) diseased organs threaten a woman’s health no matter what she does (cancer, say) and in others (2b) they do not threaten her health unless she becomes pregnant. Assume the diseased organ has been removed — an assumption to which we shall return.

Case (3) breaks down further into situations where the person has made a bona fide attempt to reverse his self-mutilation (3a) and cases where he has not (3b).

My present view is that (married, obviously) sexual relations are definitely and unquestionably licit in cases (1) and (2a) (directly contrary to CJ’s impression). I don’t have a strong view of whether relations are morally licit in cases (2b) and (3a) (the ‘hard cases’ if you will), and I am pretty certain that relations are illicit in case 3b.  (It is this latter conclusion that makes some folks consider my views “hard core” or rigorous, sometimes incorrectly characterized as rigorist or physicalist).

(2b) is a ‘hard case’ because it is pregnancy itself which is a threat to the mother’s health, not the diseased organ. The real issue is whether it is morally licit to remove the diseased organ in the first place.  It is not in fact a healthy organ, which suggests that it is licit to remove it. It is not however a threat to health in itself if left alone, which suggests that it is an illicit self-mutilation to remove it. I relate to the inclination toward the former, because removing a diseased but non-threatening organ does not strike me intuitively as ‘self-mutilation’ 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; possibly because different concrete cases might have to be broken down further.

And that’s OK, because we don’t have to have definite answers to every question in order to have definite answers to some questions.

§ 78 Responses to Fertile discussion

  • King Richard says:

    From Humane Vitae;
    “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”

    From the Catechism;
    “2361 “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”
    “2366 Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which “is on the side of life”150 teaches that “each and every marriage act must remain open ‘per se’ to the transmission of life.”151 “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.””

    So – no, sexual intercourse within the bonds of sacramental marriage after a medically-necessary hysterectomy would not be inherently sinful.

  • jf12 says:

    Does Limbo expand to encompass gray areas?

    The easiest way to proceed doctrinally is to note that Scripture itself answers the question of whether intercourse with infertile spouses is sinful: the answer is it is not sinful. As with any such question, the morality is determined by how the spouse became infertile. If she (almost always she) decided to deliberately thwart God’s will by making herself infertile, then the sin is hers. If he forced her to make herself infertile, then the sin is his.

  • DeNihilist says:

    Nice

  • sunshinemary says:

    I’ll bet you’ve covered this somewhere at some point, but what is the Catholic position on something like a married woman who has menorrhagia and thus is being treated with hormone birth control pills? Is such a couple supposed to be abstinent? The other treatments for menorrhagia are ablation and hysterectomy, which would lead to the same outcome as taking the bcp – sterility.

  • Zippy says:

    Sunshine:
    Although there is probably no shortage of people who will tell you “what the Catholic Church teaches” on that specific question, I am not one of those people. (Catholic lay organizations and Jesuit theologians can be especially atrocious about pretending that their own views on particular questions are “what the Church teaches”. The second link in the OP is to an old post where a Catholic lay apologist does just that).

    I try to be very careful to say when the views I am expressing are my own, even when I think they follow rather straightforwardly from specific passages in the Scriptures or from what the Magisterium has written about a particular subject. Given the nature of written communication it is a wonder that we can understand each other at all.

    So there is no “Catholic position” on that as far as I know: certainly no Scripturally- and Magisterially-attested doctrine of the faith which addresses that specific question, as far as I am aware.

  • jf12 says:

    The carnal focus on legalism “how much sin is bad enough” meshes well with the opposing sin of scrupulosity i.e. “how much goodness is good enough”, which evidences lack of faith.

    Re: birth control pill. As far as I know in Catholic teaching intent is king, and queen, and everything. So in some ways ignorance is bliss.

  • There are actually quite a few other treatment options for menorrhagia that preserve fertility, such as several other types of much less invasive/comprehensive surgery, other, non-BC medications, and dietary changes.

    The question of balancing health needs with being open to the possibility of pregnancy is a difficult one. It’s interesting that the comments are so oriented towards the woman who might delay or lack fertility for health reasons rather than the more common and difficult example of the woman who thinks openness to life requires being open to at least one pregnancy every year wiithout fail and anything less is evil contraceptive thinking.

    Fertility for women is more than carrying the babies. There’s also the biological set-up to feed them for a time after the birth and not conceive again, and that aspect tends to not show up in these discussions, even though it’s an important component of chaste sexual morality. Women are encouraged to privilege their uteruses over their milk glands when both ideally should be taken as a whole embrace of their fertile female potential. Catholics are less bad than Protestants (who can really go hardline into the 2 babies a year thing), but that undercurrent of ‘just pop them to stick it to liberals’ seems to permeate a lot of thinking on the matter, that any time off of being pregnant is wrong even when it’s part of the fullness of mothering.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:

    As far as I know in Catholic teaching intent is king, and queen, and everything.

    No it isn’t. The opposite is the case: many behaviors (those called “intrinsically evil”) can be qualified as morally evil apart from the intention for which the choice was made.

    This is one of those times when I will state unequivocally that this is a doctrine of the Church.

    Moral theories which propose that intent is everything are heretical:

    One must therefore reject the thesis, characteristic of teleological and proportionalist theories, which holds that it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species — its “object” — the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts, apart from a consideration of the intention for which the choice is made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.

  • Zippy says:

    TUW:

    It’s interesting that the comments are so oriented towards the woman who might delay or lack fertility for health reasons rather than the more common and difficult example of the woman who thinks openness to life requires being open to at least one pregnancy every year wiithout fail and anything less is evil contraceptive thinking.

    That’s because we live under the tyranny of the subjective. jf12’s “intent is everything” characterization of Catholic doctrine is wrong, but it is certainly a true characterization of dominant modern moral thought — including among Catholics who don’t know their own faith and/or dissent from it.

  • sunshinemary says:

    There are actually quite a few other treatment options for menorrhagia that preserve fertility, such as several other types of much less invasive/comprehensive surgery, other, non-BC medications, and dietary changes.

    So? That’s irrelevant. I was asking not because of some particular interest in menorrhagia but because I wanted to understand the Catholic thinking on unintentional side-effects.

    The question of balancing health needs with being open to the possibility of pregnancy is a difficult one. It’s interesting that the comments are so oriented towards the woman who might delay or lack fertility for health reasons rather than the more common and difficult example of the woman who thinks openness to life requires being open to at least one pregnancy every year wiithout fail and anything less is evil contraceptive thinking.

    That’s odd, in reading through the comments again, I see no comments from anyone that either directly state that or imply it.

    Fertility for women is more than carrying the babies. There’s also the biological set-up to feed them for a time after the birth and not conceive again, and that aspect tends to not show up in these discussions, even though it’s an important component of chaste sexual morality. Women are encouraged to privilege their uteruses over their milk glands when both ideally should be taken as a whole embrace of their fertile female potential. Catholics are less bad than Protestants (who can really go hardline into the 2 babies a year thing), but that undercurrent of ‘just pop them to stick it to liberals’ seems to permeate a lot of thinking on the matter, that any time off of being pregnant is wrong even when it’s part of the fullness of mothering.

    Sorry, no idea what you’re talking about. The Protestants I know have 1-2 children; a few brave souls have 3. I don’t know anyone who has a “hardline 2 babies a year thing”, especially since it would be nearly physically impossible for a nursing mother to give birth twice in twelve months.

  • jf12 says:

    Re: “the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behaviour or specific acts” Obviously the author has in front of him a list of certain kinds and specific acts. What is on that list?

  • jf12 says:

    The Magisterial attestion is
    “intention is an element essential to the moral evaluation of an action.”
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a4.htm

  • jf12 says:

    And the part I was originally looking for
    ” For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a8.htm#IV

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    You obviously didn’t read the whole thing; don’t understand the difference between the two documents; and in any event are attempting to pit Pope St. John Paul II against himself.

    An evil intention can make an otherwise good behavior morally evil. But a good intention can never make the choice of an intrinsically immoral behavior morally good. As St. Paul tells us in the New Testament, we must never do evil – not even in order that good may come of it.

    A human act consists of object (chosen behavior), intentions, and circumstances. In order to be a morally good act all three must each and independently be good: if any of the three is evil, the act is morally evil.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    I could pontificate further, since you don’t appear to understand your own latest citation; but it is sufficient for me to point out that intrinsic evil and mortal sin are distinct. Every lie is intrinsically evil, for example, but not every lie is mortal sin.

  • jf12 says:

    “Every lie is intrinsically evil, for example, but not every lie is mortal sin.” Right, to be contrasted with the typical Protestant teaching. “All sin is sin.”

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    To their credit, even when they don’t acknowledge the mortal-venial distinction many Protestants don’t act as though telling white lies and torturing children to death were morally equivalent.

  • As I understand it, intention can make any action sinful but not any action good.

  • Mike T says:

    As far as I know in Catholic teaching intent is king, and queen, and everything.

    FWIW, even conservative Protestant churches don’t believe this. Where they tend to go astray is in two areas. One, they tend to make people question their motives to the point of believing their obviously good intent is probably evil. Two, they tend to take the view at times that when it is extremely difficult to do the principled thing “God will understand” if we don’t. For example, most conservative Protestants don’t believe it is black and white objectively evil to have an abortion if the mother as cancer. They think it’s sufficiently “hard” that the the difficulty of the situation distorts the objective truth of the act.

  • jf12 says:

    SSM’s nonhypothetical example is actually an excellent illustration of the usual topic of obsession here, of the authority of legitimacy (or the legitimacy of authority, if that’s different). I going to rightly guess that more than a million US Catholic women suffer from various degrees of medically diagnosed menorrhagia, initially through self-diagnosis: “I get cramps, like every month, and then what I think is too much blood comes out. More than my sister did, for sure, usually.” And upon inquiring, sometimes forcefully inquiring, and money exchanging hands, they have been reassured by their doctors and not rarely also by their pastors that it is ok for them to take birth control pills for medical reasons.

    Is it the doctors’ fault? Is it the pastors’ fault? Is it the women’s fault?

  • jf12 says:

    @Zippy re: the mortal-venial nondistinction in Protestant doctrine. True that the topic of degrees of sin is a hazy mess. Outside the Catholic church there is no highly developed theory of sin, especially for evangelical Christians. But who wants to be an expert on sin anyway?

    Arguably, the peculiarly Catholic doctrines of, well, everything, hangs together or hangs separately on this issue of a bright-line mortal-venial divide. Works, Confession, sacramentalism in general, infant baptism, helping others atone, Purgatory, and the list goes on.

    Anyway one way I’ve heard it preached is to stop looking at it as some things being worse than others things, and intead look at as other things being better than some things. Like the way that there is no positive cold merely lack heat, and similarly darker is merely less light.

  • Skeggy Thorson says:

    excuse me for my ignorance, but as far as the intrinsic nature of the act being more important or equally important to the intention of the actor in determining the morality of the act, I believe Abelard asserted that intention was of primary importance, using the example of a man believing he is having sexual relations with his wife when in fact it is some other woman. Has the Catholic church decided against his position or am I misunderstanding something? As far as protestant distinctions regarding sins, in the various sects that I have been exposed to, it was always taught that sins varied in degree of gravity but even the smallest sin deserved damnation.

  • Mike T says:

    In the case you describe, assuming there is an actual credible reason for the mistaken identity, the man lacks the will to sin and is also ignorant. Paul said that God wrote the law into our hearts precisely so no one could claim ignorance before His judgement seat. However, a man who sleeps with his wife’s vicious identical twin because she posed as his wife could in fact claim credible ignorance and lack of will. What he thought he was doing was morally objectively morally licit, so the sin is on her, not him.

  • Mike T says:

    Consider this, Skeggy. Suppose a charity claimed to be supporting orphans in Africa and built a very good propaganda campaign that showed no signs of malice. It turns out to be a front for the Lord’s Resistance Army and all funds in fact go toward turning more children into child soldiers, not charity. It is objectively morally licit to give to charity. If a fraudster poses as a charity and intends to do evil with the funds, who is at fault?

  • Scott W. says:

    I believe Abelard asserted that intention was of primary importance, using the example of a man believing he is having sexual relations with his wife when in fact it is some other woman. Has the Catholic church decided against his position or am I misunderstanding something?

    You are missing something. Namely, that there is a difference between something being objectively wrong and a person being fully culpable for committing that wrong.

  • Zippy says:

    Skeggy Thorson;
    You have to put yourself into the perspective of the acting subject and distinguish between defects of knowledge and defects of will. I discussed that in this post, among others.

  • Zippy says:

    In other words, we are culpable for behaviors we choose. Accidents are different from deliberate decisions. In the case of an accident the ‘object’ of the act is the objective behavior the subject thought he was choosing — but note that this behavior can still be characterized objectively, thus object. Shooting the kid with a toy gun is a terrible mistake made out of ignorance precisely because of the policeman’s ignorance about the objective facts. If the policeman were not ignorant it would be murder.

    So it is true that a human act cannot be divorced from the inherent subjectivity of the person who acts: moral qualities inhere in the things that subjects should choose.

    But this isn’t true in a sense that helps moral relativists or other minions in the dictatorship of intention, because when we choose the behaviors we choose are objective: they are ‘out there’ in reality and once done we can’t undo them. The only ‘out’ in terms of culpability is when we make a mistake out of ignorance and do something we did not think we were doing; but even in those cases the action remains (in the words of the Magisterium) “an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good”.

  • Gavrila says:

    Zippy,

    If I may ask a question which goes off-topic for a moment (please excuse me for this):

    When a person is imminently threatened with potentially lethal violence and is not in a state of grace, does the importance of keeping oneself alive mitigate the sin of cowardice (cowardly words or actions) partly or at all?

  • Zippy says:

    Gavrila:
    Lets step back from the potential controversies of the particular scenario for a moment, because in this case I think that might help clarify the principles at work. What I can say – prescinding from the confounding factors of the particular case, psychology, knowledge, etc – is that it never makes sense to sin in order to protect one’s life, because it never makes sense to sin at all.

    But that’s probably not a very helpful answer in itself, and in any event doesn’t address the question.

    First, degree of guilt is always mitigated by duress. Someone under torture does not bear the same guilt for (say) apostasy as someone who is not under torture. This in no way makes an evil act into a good act though: it is always wrong to do evil, even though there are circumstances (such as invincible ignorance) in which culpability can vanish entirely.

    Second (here we venture pretty deeply into the realm of my personal understanding, where you’d want to check my work), there are two senses of “in a state of grace”, which can be thought of as two modes or aspects of the same sacrament of mercy and should not be thought of as entirely distinct.

    Someone who makes a perfect act of contrition[*] is immediately in state of grace and even may (for example) receive the Eucharist without formal absolution if in immediate danger of death. Of course the truly penitent will go to confession as circumstances allow to ‘complete’ the sacrament, and will do so before receiving the Eucharist in ordinary circumstances. It isn’t that the sacrament is optional; rather, it is that the power of Christ’s sacrament of mercy cannot be thwarted by circumstances beyond the penitent’s control. So make a perfect act of contrition immediately, do no further evil, place yourself in Christ’s merciful hands, and trust Him to work things out. Follow up with the sacraments as you can.

    [*] “Perfect act of contrition” is a scary phrase, but what it means is not as scary as its presentation. It just means that you express sorrow for your sins not only because you fear punishment, but also because you love Christ and regret doing anything that is offensive to Him.

  • Gavrila says:

    Thanks.

  • [*] “Perfect act of contrition” is a scary phrase, but what it means is not as scary as its presentation. It just means that you express sorrow for your sins not only because you fear punishment, but also because you love Christ and regret doing anything that is offensive to Him.

    I know a guy who hasn’t been to Mass in years. He once told me that he’ll just make a perfect act of contrition on his deathbed. I informed him in all charity that premeditating that kind of plan almost certainly precludes the chance that he’ll be perfectly contrite. Besides, God promises us that he will forgive any number of sins but he does not guarantee we’ll wake up tomorrow morning.

  • Zippy says:

    Beefy Levinson:

    I informed him in all charity that premeditating that kind of plan almost certainly precludes the chance that he’ll be perfectly contrite.

    Right: “perfect act of contrition” isn’t as scary as some folks think, but it isn’t as lenient as that. It means genuinely wishing we hadn’t chosen our evil acts because they offend God, who we love above all things. It is hard to see how that kind of genuine contrition can be conjured out of whole cloth after a lifetime of just doing what we want with complete ambivalence as to whether or not it offends God. Imperfect contrition, sure, almost by definition — “I’m sorry because I don’t want to be punished”, which is all that is actually necessary in the Confessional. But genuine sorrow for offending God? That’s not a bet I’d take.

  • Zippy says:

    Sunshine:

    I was asking not because of some particular interest in menorrhagia but because I wanted to understand the Catholic thinking on unintentional side-effects.

    Again, fair warning, there are plenty of folks who disagree very strongly with my views. So what you get here are “Zippy’s views”, not “the Catholic thinking” — although I do my best to make the two correspond.

    What you’ll find is that controversy rages over what is and is not an unintentional side effect. There are respected Catholic moralists (the “New Natural Law” school of thought — these are ‘conservatives’ not liberals or progressives) who propose that when a doctor crushes a living child’s skull it is possible for the child’s death to be ‘an unintended side effect’.

    That’s where the dictatorship of subjectivity/relativism/intention takes us.

  • Zippy says:

    John Finnis is the widely respected ‘conservative’ Catholic NNL theorist who thinks that when a doctor performs a craniotomy to save the mother’s life he does not ‘intend’ to kill the child. I consider that a reductio ad absurdam.

  • Gavrila says:

    Hi Beefy,

    I was almost murdered yesterday in an altercation (luckily for anti-game intellectualism I survived lol) and under the strain it did not occur to me to make an act of contrition.

    The Latin text ‘Ars morendi’ (“The art of Dying”) from the fifteenth century discusses the pitfalls of deathbed confessions, things that can go wrong etc.

  • jf12 says:

    What is the statistical excess of Catholic women having been at some point diagnosed with menorrhagia for the purpose of justifying birth control? I’m going to guess that it’s more than 200%, even taking into account the disdain that women have for authority. Many women don’t mind doing a partial genuflection to the idea that the man in charge can give them license.

  • jf12 says:

    While the intent to do a deathbed conversion evidence sin, I’m pretty sure the intent to be martyred is not. I claim this is related to the baby lif-or-death topic in the following gory way. Some of the worst murders, e.g. women killing their own children, have resulted from the killer deciding to end the victims’ lives in order to preserve their souls.

  • sunshinemary says:

    @ jf12
    My comment really wasn’t about menorrhagia; I just pulled that out of thin air as a way to consider unintended consequences. There is no reason for us to discuss this particular disease, but please just note that menorrhagia is a clinical diagnosis (usually made by uterine biopsy because the etiology can be from something quite serious and thus no doctor will risk the lawsuit by just “taking the patient’s word for it”), not just a sort of fuzzy complaint like PMS. Women who suffer from it can become fairly ill and have significant disruption to daily life, not to mention marital relations:

    http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0615/p1813.html

    Anyway, no need to go on this; I really just wanted to use it as an example of the principle I was asking about, that’s all.

  • jf12 says:

    @ssm, yes, but. I happen to know Catholic women on the pill, and I happen to know that the observant ones did self-diagnose with menorrhagia and requested that their doctors assure them that the Pill was even better for self-diagnosed menorrhagia than any other kind.

  • Zippy says:

    Sunshine:
    The “medically necessary birth control pill” scenario is similar to the “condom when one spouse is infected with HIV” scenario, which is itself controversial among Catholics. My own view of the latter is that it is always impermissible. The former differs inasmuch as even a woman who is not having sex would still use the treatment, so the cases are not identical; and the former is directed specifically at correcting problems caused by malfunctioning sexual organs.

    (Actions in themselves are intrinsically goal-directed, and part of the problem modern people have with moral relativism is incomprehension of the fact that things in the world are goal directed, that is, have a telos, independent of the subjective wishes and desires of the acting subject).

    But having sex is pretty much always optional (setting aside unilateral choices of one spouse to deny the other without good reason). So my own inclination is to suggest that if birth control pills are medically necessary, sexual relations are not.

    These aren’t questions which have been directly settled doctrinally; though there may be good arguments that the answers are implied from things which have been directly settled doctrinally.

  • Hmmm, my intuition is that saying you can’t have sex because you’re using medication to counter a legitimate medical issue is an awfully legalistic position.

    Does it make a difference to point out that technically birth control does not bring your chances of pregnancy down to zero, but simply lowers them a lot?

    (And no, the fact that condoms are only 70-90 percent effective would really not change the HIV scenario since as you said in that case the condom would be used only in the specific context of sex.)

    I don’t know. I feel like there should be at least SOME leeway with this. Zippy, you act sometimes like not having sex when married is something that’s perfectly simple, and I just don’t believe that.

  • Zippy says:

    malcolmthecynic:
    When someone says “legalistic” what I typically hear is “I don’t have a good counterargument, but I don’t like the result”. Perhaps you have a better understanding of “legalistic” you’d like to share.

    you act sometimes like not having sex when married is something that’s perfectly simple

    In what universe is doing the right thing “simple?” In whose cushy, coddled existence are there no tough choices, just a pill to solve every problem?

    Since when has marching up Calvary carrying your cross been “simple”?

  • Mike T says:

    When someone says “legalistic” what I typically hear is “I don’t have a good counterargument, but I don’t like the result”. Perhaps you have a better understanding of “legalistic” you’d like to share.

    In general, among conservative protestants legalism means you are so obsessed with the literal law that you are (obvious to everyone around you) missing the point of why God might have required something. Similar to the Pharisees that would have sooner let a man die unnecessarily than “work” on the Sabbath by saving his life.

    Catholics usually stop once the birth control argument gets to “it violates God’s plan in sexual acts.” But what is God’s plan? To be fruitful and multiply. A couple that chooses to never have children for any reason other than service to God or extreme medical issues that no decent person would wish to risk passing onto children, is violating God’s will that we should be fruitful and multiply. Judao-Christian tradition is clear: you can skip having kids if you either cannot find a good spouse or wish to dedicate yourself to God’s service. You cannot, however, licitly dedicate your life to your own marriage-free, child-free, Godly service-free existence.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    …you [the target of the charge of legalism] are so obsessed with the literal law that you are (obvious to everyone around you) missing the point of why God might have required something. Similar to the Pharisees that would have sooner let a man die unnecessarily than “work” on the Sabbath by saving his life.

    When folks say stuff like that I hear a shallow morally relativist attack on exceptionless moral norms. “Following the moral law in this ‘hard case’ would be really difficult“, and “what could it hurt, anyway?” and “the merciful God I believe in wouldn’t want me to be unhaaaaaapy.”

    Mind you, I could certainly be wrong about the particular ‘hard cases’ we are discussing. But if so, it won’t be because of some moral relativist claptrap to the effect that the moral law only applies when it is easy and the ‘victims of the crime’ are obvious.

    Catholics usually stop once the birth control argument gets to “it violates God’s plan in sexual acts.”

    That is a very Protestant way of saying it (which means it is a very ‘ecumenical’ way for a Catholic to say it when attempting to appeal to Protestant sensibilities). Actually it is that mutilating the sexual act is contrary to the telos of sex, so it is morally wrong under the natural law to do so.

    Of course most modern everyday Catholics don’t understand the subject themselves, so what they might say to you is anyone’s guess; but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a befuddled confusion of modernist slogans and ecumania.

  • Zippy says:

    When I say “mutilating the sexual act is contrary to the telos of sex” it might help folks to think of it this way:

    God made Creation in this particular way, such that the sexual act between man and woman has certain ends. Performing a mutilated sexual act in a way which inherently frustrates those ends is therefore to willfully spit on God’s Creation: it is an act of blasphemy, it intrinsically involves embracing lies about Nature and Nature’s God, and it inherently expresses hatred of children.

  • Perhaps you have a better understanding of “legalistic” you’d like to share.

    Annoying sarcasm aside, sure (Got under your skin there?). It’s not so much that I “don’t like the result” (It’s quite possible this whole thing will NEVER apply to me anyway, for one thing) as the result seems wrong. THAT work for you?

    Intuitively, there doesn’t seem to me to be any moral issue with having sex while on the pill for legitimate medical reasons, and saying “Yes, there is, because it goes against the telos of sex” seems to me to miss the point of the whole thing, since you’re not having sex in an effort to flout morality. You just have a medical issue that makes it more difficult for you to get pregnant.

    I’m really on your side here (we’re both Catholic), convince me if you can, but your exasperation isn’t impressing me.

    In what universe is doing the right thing “simple?”

    If this actually had anything to do with what I said it would be a great response. But it doesn’t, since I never said that. You don’t need to preach to me about sacrifice, thanks.

  • Performing a mutilated sexual act in a way which inherently frustrates those ends is therefore to willfully spit on God’s Creation…

    But you’re not “spitting on God’s Creation”, you have a legitimate medical issue.

  • Zippy says:

    malcolmthecynic:
    I wasn’t being sarcastic. I am quite serious: the charge of “legalistic” appears to mean “I think you are wrong, but I don’t have an argument why”.

    You might want to reconsider the rhetorical tactic of accusing me of making light of the sacrifices required by morality and then pivoting by claiming that you don’t need to be “preached to about sacrifice”.

    Would you similarly assert that sexual relations while using a condom is licit as long as there are legitimate medical reasons? That abortion to save the mother’s life is permissible?

    Finally, I’ll reiterate that I don’t have a strong opinion on the kind of case that has your intuitions in a twist. An inclination is not a conclusion.

  • Zippy says:

    malcolmthecynic:

    But you’re not “spitting on God’s Creation”, you have a legitimate medical issue.

    Is it impossible to have a medical issue which renders sexual intercourse morally illicit? What about someone who is HIV positive from a blood transfusion?

  • There are very fundamental differences (consider this also a response to your next post) to those cases and this one. (Also, I call for a truce. Deal?)

    1) Abortion when the mother’s life is in danger – In that case you are literally choosing your life over your child’s. That case, in my opinion, actually IS a lot simpler than you think. The doctor has to try to save both people. It’s no different than in any other situation. Contrasted with a mother using birth control for medical reasons, it’s not a matter of picking and choosing who’s life matters more to you.

    I feel like I’m doing a bad job explaining it. Boiled down: Using.birth control for medical reasons and then having sex is different than having an abortion to save the mother’s life because in the former act you are not making a value judgment between the lives of two people.

    2) Sexual relations when using a condom – the difference is that, as you said, such a person would be taking the birth control pill even if they weren’t having sex. I know I didn’t go into such details, but rest assured I realize the relevant caveats. A condom is used to frustrate the sexual act, period. Birth control can be used for other reasons, which changes the whole thing.

    I know this is stuff we’ve all mentioned, but since you asked…

  • (I just realized that with the abortion case I wrote a lot simpler than “you” think, which is actually a typo. It should just be “people”, in general. Zippy, I realize you understand distinctions regarding abortion quite well.)

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Zippy,
    Might using pills and then engaging be licit if done in spirit of forgetfulness?

    Even with NFP, I think the spirit of forgetfulness, in contrast with spirit of technique, might it not make the difference between licit and illicit use of NFP?.
    What I mean is that fundamental things should not be done in an overly technical and calculating way. The calculation and the technique negates love, and the free gift of self that needs to occur.

  • Zippy says:

    Malcolm:
    Don’t sweat the “you”; that’s just how people talk.

    Hormonal birth control is abortifacient, so the connection to abortion isn’t just theoretical. (The story is that low-dose is abortifacient and high dose is not, or maybe it is the other way around – but what is meant by “is” and “is not” is “is more” and “is less”; and in any event our ability to determine such things even statistically is greatly exaggerated). So while “would the medical intervention be necessary even if she were not engaging in sex” seems like a reasonable heuristic at first, it has its weaknesses.

    The fact is that sexual relations are optional. And while we are talking heuristics, “would you do this treatment if it meant you would have to abstain from sex completely” is a pretty good heuristic for this general kind of situation.

  • Zippy says:

    vishmehr24:

    What I mean is that fundamental things should not be done in an overly technical and calculating way.

    There is something to this, though I don’t think it helps a lenient-on-contraception case because contraception is intrinsically technical and calculating. But I made a similar point in some of the sex-after-vasectomy discussions here — that (e.g.) the physical presence of sperm in the semen cannot be a requirement of natural law, because inspecting one’s semen in a microscope is manifestly not a requirement of natural law.

  • Well, I’d at any rate immediately agree that if the contraceptive is an abortifacient then it shouldn’t be taken at all.

  • Zippy says:

    Malcolm:
    As far as I know they all are, to greater or lesser degree: what is presented as a dichotomy is actually a continuum.

    But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking them if she abstains from sex.

  • jf12 says:

    vishmehr24 also highlights the “ignorance is bliss” portion of culpability, but I want to ask again: if she can get a doctor to say she needs it, and if her pastor similarly passes the buck “Well, the doctor said it”, and she feels a burning in the bosom “this is right for me”, who is it that she will pay attention to that will tell her differently?

  • jf12 says:

    re: “they all are, to greater or lesser degree” Yes.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    FWIW, the idea that it is morally permissible because the balance of opinion finds it morally permissible is the heresy of laxism. (A similar heresy, rigorism, holds that it is impermissible unless the balance of opinion holds it to be permissible).

    Those accustomed to chambering a round in the presence of moral relativism will note that both are species of moral relativism.

  • jf12 says:

    Interesting about laxism and rigorism. There seems to be some statistical sampling involved in the operational definitions, and therefore some unavoidable uncertainty.

    But the idea of seeking out an authority who will justify your decisions is along the lines of those with “itching ears” of 2 Timothy 4. In such a case it doesn’t matter that two previous doctors already pooh-poohed her notions, provided the third doctor agrees she might have a mild form of menorrhagia.

  • jf12 says:

    BTW every Protestant women I know who uses birth control pills is deliberately ignorant of their abortifacient effects, appealing not only to ignorance “I didn’t know that!” but also to the failings of their authorities “If it were so, then my doctor and my pastor would have made it clearer to me.”

  • Zippy says:

    Actually my description of laxism and rigorism was a bit atrocious. But I won’t correct it, because I don’t really care about the subject in the slightest: the idea that the opinions of a bunch of theologians are capable of altering what is and is not objectively morally permissible, which both rigorism and laxism hold to be the case, is risible moral relativism.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    jf12,
    Spirit of forgetfulness is not precisely “ignorance is bliss”. The point is not to regard your body in the objective, scientific way since the objective, scientific approach is inappropriate.

  • jf12 says:

    Re: ignorance. A *lot* of people think that “they know not what they do” is a kind of shortcut to forgiveness and therefore salvation.

  • Zippy says:

    jf12:
    Even if it is, those who truly love Christ will strive to do better. How can we love Christ without striving to know what is pleasing to Him and what offends against Him? That is, how can those who truly love Christ be content with ignorance of what is truly virtuous?

  • Mike T says:

    But I made a similar point in some of the sex-after-vasectomy discussions here — that (e.g.) the physical presence of sperm in the semen cannot be a requirement of natural law, because inspecting one’s semen in a microscope is manifestly not a requirement of natural law.

    And this is why Protestants often don’t take natural law seriously. You would have use believe that people cognizant of the effects of a vasectomy are governed the same as pre-modern men bereft of that information. You might as well say that modern men are not morally culpable for the self-inflicted injury that would come if we started lining our cups, jars and plumbing with lead because the Romans were ignorant and couldn’t be held accountable.

  • Mike T says:

    When folks say stuff like that I hear a shallow morally relativist attack on exceptionless moral norms. “Following the moral law in this ‘hard case’ would be really difficult“, and “what could it hurt, anyway?” and “the merciful God I believe in wouldn’t want me to be unhaaaaaapy.”

    Mind you, I could certainly be wrong about the particular ‘hard cases’ we are discussing. But if so, it won’t be because of some moral relativist claptrap to the effect that the moral law only applies when it is easy and the ‘victims of the crime’ are obvious.

    The legalistic argument does not come down to a matter of difficulty. It comes down to missing the point. That is why I compared you to the Pharisee who would let his neighbor die needlessly rather than “work” on the Sabbath by saving him.

  • jf12 says:

    @Zippy “That is, how can those who truly love Christ be content with ignorance of what is truly virtuous?”

    True. That’s why someone looking for a back door “maybe I’ll forget sometimes” should want to know to change his view.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    And this is why Protestants often don’t take natural law seriously. You would have use believe that people cognizant of the effects of a vasectomy are governed the same as pre-modern men bereft of that information.

    And in taking that tack those Protestants just make their ignorance of history manifest. Vasectomies have been around for at least half a millennium and probably for thousands of years.

    Furthermore, the fact that in the modern age we have technical means of murdering people that were not well understood a thousand years ago doesn’t call into question the immorality of murdering people via (say) radiation poisoning.

    The legalistic argument does not come down to a matter of difficulty. It comes down to missing the point.

    There is no argument against “legalism”, as far as I can tell. In fact “legalism” doesn’t appear to even be something well-defined enough to argue against. As I said above, the “legalism” mantra appears to be just sloganistic raging of intuition in the absence of a counterargument.

    That is why I compared you to the Pharisee who would let his neighbor die needlessly rather than “work” on the Sabbath by saving him.

    … which makes a happy little straw man in support of the sloganistic raging, since no natural law theorist has ever taken that position, well, ever. But whatever brings comfort to raving moral relativism, I guess.

    If you had to commit adultery or murder a child or sodomize a young boy in order to save your life (or to save the world), would it be “legalism” to suggest that you still shouldn’t do it? If not, then welcome to the club: you also believe in exceptionless moral prohibitions, and just don’t agree that contracepted sexual acts are always wrong. If so, then your “legalism” charge can go straight to the pits of Hell where it belongs.

    As I suggested already, the ‘legalism’ business is just a deeply rooted moral relativism casting about for rationalizations.

  • Mike T says:

    If not, then welcome to the club: you also believe in exceptionless moral prohibitions, and just don’t agree that contracepted sexual acts are always wrong

    Well yes, that’s the point. There are times when God has flatly, categorically forbidden something. The examples you provided are ones where God has given revelation of His will and we know precisely where God stands. The only categorical condemnation of contraception comes from natural law. The only time God condemns a man for contraception is in the context of refusing to give his wife a child.

    … which makes a happy little straw man in support of the sloganistic raging, since no natural law theorist has ever taken that position, well, ever.

    Natural law theorists, of the Catholic persuasion, never had to take issue with that because Jesus took a side on the issue. Hindsight is 20/20. This position was not even remotely obvious to all Right Thinking People in Israel prior to the ministry of Christ, which is precisely the point.

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:

    The examples you provided are ones where God has given revelation of His will and we know precisely where God stands.

    So you are a “legalist” too when it suits your moral philosophy.

    I’ve had sola scriptura Protestants tell me in these very comboxes that (just as one example) polygamy is fine and dandy and not adultery, that divorce and remarriage is fine and dandy and not adultery sometimes, etc etc.

    That is a side point though.

    Centrally, notice how the charge of “legalism” suddenly disappears when the context shifts to things that the accuser agrees are always prohibited by moral law. This demonstrates my point: that the “legalism” charge means nothing more than “I don’t feel that X is always morally prohibited, and by chanting ‘legalism’ as a kind of soft ad hominem I can red herring away from the substantive matter at hand and declare victory. Look, squirrel!”

    Natural law theorists, of the Catholic persuasion, never had to take issue with [“working” to save a man’s life on the Sabbath] because Jesus took a side on the issue.

    With all due respect, this is one of those statements that exhibits so deep an incomprehension of the Catholic view of things that it probably renders communication impossible. Even if you don’t agree with the Catholic view you should try to understand it on its own terms, and the idea that a seven day week and keeping the sabbath could even comprehensibly be part of the natural law demonstrates complete lack of comprehension of natural law, Divine law, revelation, reason, etc. and the relationships between them.

  • CJ says:

    If not, then welcome to the club: you also believe in exceptionless moral prohibitions, and just don’t agree that contracepted sexual acts are always wrong. If so, then your “legalism” charge can go straight to the pits of Hell where it belongs.

    Couldn’t we say then, that legalism is treating a moral prohibition as exceptionless when in fact it isn’t?

  • Zippy says:

    CJ:

    Couldn’t we say then, that legalism is treating a moral prohibition as exceptionless when in fact it isn’t?

    If so then the charge of ‘legalism’ just means ‘I disagree’, and you’d be better off just saying “I disagree” because of the baggage associated with ‘legalism’.

    “Legalism” sounds so much more perjorative than “I disagree”, and it is intended to do so, as Mike T makes clear above:

    In general, among conservative protestants legalism means you are so obsessed with the literal law that you are (obvious to everyone around you) missing the point of why God might have required something.

    The legalistic argument does not come down to a matter of difficulty. It comes down to missing the point.

    So legalism is a sign of obsession with the literal law and of missing the point that is obvious to everyone but you, not just of, you know, disagreeing that there are exceptions to the moral prohibition of X for the particular X under discussion.

    Since the accusation is almost always accompanied by lack of an argument to back up “you must be wrong because feelings, and anyway you are a Meany obsessed with Rules”, I think my initial characterization accurately reflects its essence: the charge of legalism basically means “I think you are wrong, and slightly autistic, and not good and compassionate like Christians should be; but I don’t have an argument that you are wrong, so ‘look squirrel'”.

  • CJ says:

    “Legalism” sounds so much more perjorative than “I disagree”, and it is intended to do so, as Mike T makes clear above:

    Well, yeah. But that’s a feature rather than a bug. There’s a place for strong criticism of the type of thinking that wouldn’t allow healing a cripple because it’s the Sabbath. There will be disagreements as to whether any particular instance fits the bill, but that doesn’t mean that legalism (as I proposed to define it) isn’t a “thing.”

  • Zippy says:

    CJ:

    There’s a place for strong criticism of the type of thinking that wouldn’t allow healing a cripple because it’s the Sabbath.

    Folks who are fond of the term as applied to matters of positive law and discipline, and don’t want to see it summarily dismissed as a straw man, probably ought to be first in line to criticize instances of its use as a straw man (as in this discussion).

    My experiences are just my experiences, of course. But here is a comprehensive list of all the times in my personal experience when someone alive in the present age has argued anything remotely like anything in the same continent of a ballpark of the idea that keeping the Sabbath holy meant that, as Mike T put it, and I quote, we should “let [our] neighbor die needlessly rather than ‘work’ on the Sabbath by saving him”:

    { }

    That’s the complete and unabridged list.

    On the other hand I’ve seen the charge ‘legalism’ used countless times to attack the idea that there are exceptionless moral norms that we can know through the natural law which is, as St. Paul puts it in Scripture, “written in our hearts”. As the term was actually used in this discussion, in other words.

    So I’m going with my current impression: a charge of ‘legalism’ is typically an ad hominem straw man by default, and the burden of proof is on the person using the term to clearly show otherwise.

    In which case, as I suggested, it is better for y’all to just stick to “I disagree”. At least if you are talking to me you should, because you now know how I am going to interpret charges of ‘legalism’ (leveled against myself or anyone else) by default. If you say “I disagree” I’ll treat it with respect. If you stamp your tiny little feet and shout the magic DHV incantation ‘legalism’, I won’t.

  • Zippy says:

    Y’all can treat “legalism” like the term “racism” or “sexism”, if you like, as far as I am concerned. It isn’t that there is no such thing; but when someone in the present age attempts to defecate all over an otherwise reasonable discussion with the word I am most likely not going to be impressed.

  • jf12 says:

    Can exceptionalism aka snowflakeism be squeezed into the exact same ordurous category as legalism? “My circumstances are special because feewings. Hence, I deserve a break today.”

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