Russell and Duenes

When You See the Pope is Right

with 2 comments

In preparation for my Ethics class, I again read through Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). Of course, the Pope’s argument went over like a lead balloon back in ’68, and has been scoffed at all the more over the decades since then. Yet many Protestants are finally coming around and taking the Pope’s assertions about the nature of marital intercourse seriously. And how could anyone who has read this not? The central thesis is that sexual intercourse between husband and wife “is based on an 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.” In other words, when we try to pull apart the central purpose of married love, namely, babies and bonding, we get disaster. And artificial birth control methods accomplish this separation of the unitive and procreative purpose. As Albert Mohler says in his excellent recent essay on the 50th anniversary of The Pill, “The idea that sex would be severed from childbearing is a very modern concept — and a concept made meaningful only by the development of the Pill and its successor birth control technologies. The severing of this relationship represents a quantum change in human life and relationships, not to mention morality.”

The Pope saw this very clearly and made the following predictions about the effects of artificial birth control.

1) It will “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Check!

2) It opens the way for “a man [who] grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods [to] forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Check!

3) “Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law…Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” Ah, did we not hear Nancy Pelosi saying that part and parcel of the stimulus bill was the advancement of contraceptive use? Check!

The Pope sounds like a prophet here. Can we blame all of the above problems on artificial contraception use? I doubt it, but the Pope wasn’t grasping at straws when he wrote this. And how could he have been so prescient if it was all by coincidence? I would commend the reading of Humanae Vitae to any and all of my readers, if for no other reason than to consider whether one has properly assessed the moral issues involved in the use of birth control, or whether one has considered the use of birth control to even be a moral issue at all.

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

April 30, 2010 at 9:16 pm

2 Responses

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  1. As presented, it seems that the Pope posits two arguments: a deontological and a consequential.

    Regarding the consequential arguments (i.e., that certain maladies would result from birth control), they are only maladies if one has accepted the norms that make them maladies in the first place. Thus, it’s unlikely those arguments would convince anyone who doesn’t have a firm belief that those results are wrong.

    Regarding the deontological argument, it that is what he is indeed making, (i.e., that pulling apart babies and bonding from intercourse is wrong), it follows, as it would with any such argument, that the result only comes about deductively if one accepts the premises. Thus, if one doesn’t believe babies and bonding are the primary purposes of sex, only evolutionary offshoots (not that this contention has any scientific basis), his argument is irrelevant.

    My point in stating all this obviousness is not that I disagree or have grounds to disagree. Rather, it is to point out that questions like this one are full of interpretive and philosophical difficulties. I can’t help but feel that many orthodox/conservative/evangelical believers feel like these issues are settled, black and white. Though I’m in no way accusing you both of this, since the existence of the blog militates against that assertion, there are those that are unwilling to even consider the difficulties of modern evolutionary biology meeting scripture.

    My question to all believers would be: Are we willing to admit that God exists and there is a right and wrong answer, but that we may have to struggle to reach it and still never may?

    Joshua House

    April 30, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    • Your points are well-taken, Josh. You’re right in noting both consequentialist and deontological arguments here. The Pope would indeed argue that artificial contraception is “wrong in itself, by its very nature,” and that it leads to terrible moral and social consequences. You’re also quite right in noting the epistemological issues at hand here as well. Of course, the Pope, along with myself, is starting from a biblical and natural law epistemology. I assume the Bible to be true and base everything on that. That is a faith position, as is every other epistemological position (though many don’t admit it).

      However, I take it to be the case that most people today would consider it to be a norm that widespread adultery and marital dissolution are not good things. They would also agree that the general “objectifying” and misogynistic treatments of women by men are bad. Perhaps they would even think that governments forcing birth control on certain people is also bad. What people like about The Pill is the idea that it gives them control and makes them “free to choose.” They swallowed such “freedom” whole without thinking about the long-term consequences of what it would bring in its train. They are still blind to it, perhaps willfully.

      As for the deontological argument, it would be impossible, in my view, to argue that sex has another purpose other than babies and bonding. Even if one begins with an evolutionary epistemology, what we observe empirically is that babies and bonding are what result from sex, so if we are arguing from an evolutionary biological standpoint, we’d have to concludes that sex helps us survive because it brings about babies and bonding. Of course, I reject evolutionary epistemology, for under such an epistemology, we can’t really talk about purposes for anything. In fact, we can’t even really talk; we can only be atoms bumping into each other at certain temperatures.

      Yes, the interpretive and philosophical difficulties are here, but they start much further back. They begin with the epistemological questions. I don’t think these issues are black and white, but I do think they can’t be simply waived off as irrelevant or as “my choice to do what I want.” A question I would add to yours is: Are we willing to be taught by the church’s teaching and practice down through the 2000 years of church history? Are we willing to reject the “chronological snobbery” under whose spell we have fallen? And are we willing to have frank and honest discussion about these things in the evangelical church, or do we blow these things off as irrelevant to “preaching the gospel?”

      -D

      russellandduenes

      May 1, 2010 at 7:31 am


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