Wednesday, February 12, 2003

On Contraception: to the National Catholic Reporter

I recall having only one letter to the editor printed in a Catholic paper. It was the secular papers that accepted my essay-length responses. The Florida Catholic did take one from me, a very short one edited by yours truly for conciseness, which was then further edited by the paper's editor for, uh-huh, conciseness, and further edited so as to rip its guts out - a single sentence which comprised its core, accusing the bishop of not doing his job by allowing a local priest to invite the moral heretic Charles Curran to speak at his parish. By the time they were done with it the letter hardly existed. I sent another (which I can no longer find) to Our Sunday Visitor, who returned it with the helpful advice that it might be better suited to The Wanderer. Hmm.

Then one day I picked up an issue of the National Catholic Reporter, which the new batch of with-it priests at our parish made sure was always lying around somewhere. Inside was an editorial issued in the wake of The Global 2000 Report to the President. I think the group authoring the report had been summoned into conclave by President Carter, but possessing no premonition that he would be but a one-term president. So it had to be delivered into the hands of a presumably unsympathetic President Reagan. The editors at NCR, however, were quite sympathetic to the report's conclusions, and their editorial is consequently rather apocalyptic in tone. You see, "By the year 2000, there will be an additional 2.3 billion mouths to feed." (Not "babies born into the world," but "mouths to feed.") Prohibiting contraception, you see, "promotes the choice of abortion," and if we keep doing it we'll end up - voila! - like China, and - furthermore! - this will "escalate into other anti-life evils such as killing the elderly, the crippled, the retarded." Wow. Talk about a slippery slope. And all this because the Vatican is ignorant of the real "issues for Catholics," which "include peace, justice, food[?] and a chance at self-fulfillment," and all that because "Rome has shown itself incapable of dealing with human sexuality cogently and pastorally," which in turn requires pointing us in the direction of certain Vatican II documents which support the NCR take on things, and making reference to the 8 out of 10 Catholic "couples" who ignore "it," it being Humanae Vitae. Well, you can't keep a good Poper on his knees for long, so I got up and fired off another letter to the editor, who in this case was one Thomas C. Fox. Never heard of him, neither before nor since, but I hope he has lots of children. It will probably come as a complete surprise when I tell you that the letter was not printed. How about if I told you that it was never returned? Well how about that not only was it not returned, but was never acknowledged as having been received? Just on the outside chance that such skulduggery might occur, I kept a copy. It is dated September, 1980.

Dear Mr. Fox:

Your editorial of August 15 was, unsurprisingly, another sword through the heart for those of us who believe that the mandate to teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals was vested by Christ in the Church's magisterium and not in the editors of Catholic newspapers. It is also painful to witness your participation in a general trend that by now amounts to a popular pastime: the relentless distortion of the teachings of Vatican II. Since I would prefer to conclude that this is not your true intent, I am forced to surmise that either you have not read the documents you cite in support of your position, or that there were actually two Second Vatican Councils, one of which I am unaware and both of which violently disagree with each other.

Let me plunge right in. NCR states: "The Second Vatican Council (Church in the Modern World, 48ff) displaced procreation as the number one purpose of marital sex by placing it alongside mutual love and support, and other concerns as well." Odd, but after reading the recommended Church in the Modern World, 48ff, I can find nothing to this effect, and the reason lies in your objectionable and contradictory use of the word "displaced." When one thing is placed alongside another, neither is displaced. Whatever role NCR assigns to marital sex, it surely must fall within the embrace of the Council's unequivocal statements on marriage: "By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory." (No. 48) Lest its import be missed, this statement is repeated once more in No. 50. Your next remark, that "the Vatican still does not really accept that sex means more than selfish pleasure," would be laughable were it not so arrogant, for you certainly did not glean this jewel from the trove of Council documents. You are merely putting words into the mouths of the despised Curia, men who, the more you rant and rave, become the objects of my sympathy. Whatever their private thoughts on the matter, all bishops are bound to uphold the Council teachings, and their adherence to Humanae Vitae does not contradict their professed allegiance. How do I know? Why, the Council documents, of course, where I find (No. 50) that: "Married people should realize that in their behavior they may not simply follow their own fancy but must be ruled by conscience - and conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in light of the teaching authority of the Church, which is the authentic interpreter of divine law." So much for the "rest of the people who are the Catholic Church," who "must deal with human sexuality without waiting for Rome's leadership," who "must involve themselves in population programs in keeping with their consciences...and forthrightly place the need for birth control within their other endeavors in meeting the needs of today's world." Do you not feel the least responsibility for attempting to misguide their consciences, a task that is not within your province to begin with?

After offering a hearty pat on the back for those couples who "undertake the proper upbringing of a large number of children", No. 50 further advises that "marriage is not merely for the procreation of children," a statement not intended to support your contention of 'displacement,' but to remind us that the "mutual love of the partners," which brought them together in the first place, must "grow and mature," and to further assure those couples for whom the raising up of children is an impossibility (which will only occur "despite the intense desire of the spouses") that their marriage is no less of a whole. No where is sex mentioned in this passage and in no way may it be construed as an implicit endorsement of contraception or as the first premise of a syllogism leading to such a conclusion. How do I know? Why, the Council documents, of course, where I find (No. 51) the following counsel offered to couples who find themselves "in a position where the number of children cannot be increased":

"When it is a question of harmonizing married love with the responsible transmission of life, it is not enough to take only the good intention and the evaluation of motives into account; the objective criteria must be used...criteria which respect the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation...all this is possible only if the virtue of married chastity is seriously practiced."

There it is, horror of horrors, in black and white - married chastity. And not one word about it in your editorial. The next sentence from No. 51 nearly lifted me out of my chair: "In questions of birth regulation the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law." Well, well, well. It would appear, in this light, that the distinction you draw between the Vatican's view and that of Vatican II does not really exist or, to be charitable, constitutes a highly questionable proposition. The claim of this proposition, that a specific sexual act need not be open to life, is perfectly legitimate during the infertile periods. But if during the fertile periods "mutual love and support" and "other concerns as well" (really, how vague) are the only reasons for engaging in this particular act, have they not "displaced" procreation rather than "placing it alongside" themselves as a welcome and indispensable friend? A woman (and her husband) who turns off her fertility as she would another household convenience treats her body and its possibilities as things other than herself, as though they were not fully a part of her womanhood, and refuses to take responsibility for God's gift.

Please, let us speak plainly. Are you not lobbying for the right of married couples to gratify their sexual desires at leisure without risking pregnancy? But the Church has never taught that couples have this right whether the risk is present or not, and never will. She teaches that the gratification of sexual desire pursued as an end in itself is a consequence of Adam's iniquity, into which we are all born - or will you confound this teaching as well?

If, as you say, "sexual pleasure does not breed selfishness," then it need not be sinful, in which case I promise the Lord to indulge this pleasure daily, that I might breed unselfishness. And if, as you say, "selfishness is a precondition that destroys sexual pleasure," then Lord, make me unselfish, that I might not dilute this pleasure.

Needless to say, I find your rhetoric here contradictory and contrary to experience (because your premise can be extended to include fornication between unmarried couples). Selfishness does not destroy sexual pleasure, at least not for the selfish party. My sexual pleasure is, after all, my sexual pleasure. But selfishness does destroy the meaning of sexual pleasure, which is that a child may come of it, and any child conceived outside the eternal promise of marriage is the child of a selfish act. Hence, sexual pleasure can never be regarded as its own reason for being. I can conceive any number of ways by which a man and woman might demonstrate their "mutual love and support," but only one by which a child might be conceived. Aside from the Virgin Birth, all others truly escape me. I really don't think any man and woman would repair to the bedroom for mutual love and support if sexual pleasure were not involved. But I do think they would so repair if they wished to conceive a child, whether the sensation involved was pleasurable or not. I believe, in fact, that they would endure considerable pain for the sake of this possible child.

If the Church's prohibition of contraception is, as you claim, "forcing people to have children they don't want," then Her recalcitrance cannot be characterized as benign wrong-headedness but as malicious indifference, although something might be said for the malicious indifference of parents who despise the fruit of the mother's womb, the now living reminder of that night of mutual love and support and unselfish pleasure, which love and support and unselfishness will not immediately embrace this third party. Since your ultimate moral ground for the advocacy of contraception depends upon whether or not a couple wants the child, then these people must slough off at once the magisterium's teaching and conform their consciences to the teaching of NCR, that they be no longer so sadly deluded, although I can't for the life of me figure out why, if the Church is so stark-raving wrong, these people's consciences should continue to bedevil them so. If their not wanting the child is the ultimate moral ground, or the fact that the earth's ecology in the year 2000 simply will not abide another Indian baby for Mother Teresa to pluck out of a trash bin, then surely it is God's will that this child never have been conceived, and hence, never born. And if that is God's will, then surely His blessing would fall upon the deployment of abortion to prevent this travesty being visited upon those already living. It is at this point I find contraception and abortion horribly and inextricably entwined, like stumbling upon a woman you thought virtuous in bed with a notorious seducer. I can't get past the plain and practical fact that it's awfully easy to oppose abortion if you never have to worry about becoming pregnant. It will always be the life of someone else's child you are defending. When Utopia arrives and we are all using contraception and all babies are wanted, what moral courage is required to defend the lives of children who will never exist? I've always thought life so precious simply because it is so unexpected, not only its appearance in the womb but on the face of the planet. It is this element of surprise for which we take up arms.

Frankly, all this talk about a population explosion makes me nervous as well as skeptical. I am too timid a soul to welcome the responsibility of pointing to a particular child and declaring: "This is one too many mouths to feed. This child should never have been born." I confess, in these matters, a sense of my own fallibility, since the sly child might in turn point the finger at me. And who, may I ask, is this child? I suspect that on this subject the thinking of people who prepare presidential reports becomes as indistinct as the teeming masses themselves. It appears all too obvious that there are too many because there are so many - yet they are not the same thing. There must first be one too many before one million. Who is that child?

According to the cowardly title of the presidential report, Global 2000, he seems to lie somewhere in the future, so that we need not point to anyone living. But millions are starving today. There have been poor and hungry people ever since those-who-had decided they would not share with those-who-had-not. Asking me to accept the proposition that permission to use artificial contraception will induce Mr. Have to behave charitably toward Mr. Have-not is, to borrow a phrase, rather like asking me to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. (None of this, by the way, has anything to do with your defense of the right of American Catholics to unselfish sexual pleasure. I am not aware of an overpopulation of Catholics in the United States. Your argument there was a matter of convenience, not necessity).

You will forgive me if I have been too strident here and there, but I can console myself with the knowledge that I am no more strident than Mother Teresa, who claims that "there can never be too many." Rather presumptuous, wouldn't you say, coming from a celibate woman who runs such a small-time operation? Nevertheless, she is behaving charitably toward Mr. Have-not, the least of our brethren, the child of our unselfishness. It's people like her that give unselfishness a bad name.

I look forward to seeing my letter in your paper, for though you may look in vain toward the Vatican for certain virtues not forthcoming, I feel certain that one of the virtues most highly prized by the editors of NCR is a sense of fair play.

With best wishes for yourCatholic paper,
William Luse

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