Sunday, April 04, 2004

Sunday Thought: Elizabeth Anscombe on The New Christian Offer - you can have sex without children

By Elizabeth Anscombe, with whom we might be spending several Sundays. The title above is hers, circa 1966, and has, she says, "the historical interest of having been delivered before Humanae Vitae came out." This is just an excerpt from a much longer piece:

...This is why in the field of sexuality we have been given, on the one hand, a set of rules about what sorts of acts may or may not be done; on the other, a lot of slush about love and family life. What should be is presented either in terms of specific acts that are not sinful as such, or in a sentimental picture.

One way of looking at the Church's ethical teaching about sex might be summarized as follows: outside marriage, sexual acts are simply excluded; within marriage, spouses may always use their rights (except, for example, during illness); these rights of spouses over one another's bodies are, as St. Paul teaches, equal and mutual. But this sounds dry, negative, even heartless, so we attempt something more positive in the way of praising the married state and conjugal love. "Marriage is a sacrament, symbolizing the bond of Christ and the Church, and the married state a vocation; aided by grace, the Christian pair build up their Christian life together and grow in mutual love and knowledge. Their physical union plays an integral part in their growth in sanctified love." This sounds all right, but we must ask what is meant by "love": being in love, natural conjugal affection? Either of these may be lacking or only one-sided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, then we cannot build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present; its not being present is sad, but this sadness exists; it is very common. We must avoid speaking and writing in the sort of indicative mood that is used in the Scout Law: "A Boy Scout is kind to animals. A Boy Scout is pure in thought, word, and deed." When I read "A Christian husband and wife grow in grace and love together", my first thought is: what if they do not? It would clear the air if we substituted for the sweetness of a rosy picture the bite of a precept: "The commandment to a Christian pair is: grow in grace and love together." Then we should be in less danger of simply taking for granted that the pleasant affection which obtains between a lucky and congenial couple is already proof that the precept has been fulfilled. Where such wonderful good fortune is present, there will be the question "Are we fulfilling this precept?", no less than for a less lucky pair. The precept, as I stated it, is a joint one; a joint precept can only be obeyed in common. So the answer may have to be no: yet then there remain the separate precepts to each, and in an irremediably unhappy marriage one ought still to love the other, though the common precept cannot be obeyed, and though he does not feel the sort of affection which cannot be commanded, and which is simply good fortune.

But for such couples what application is there for the frequent description of sexual intercourse as "justified not merely for procreation but by its part in married life, as an expression of mutual love, tenderness, affection, and respect?" Are we to infer that people who are unlucky in their married life ought to abstain from intercourse? Perhaps not: people who write in this style are not, I believe, so consequent in their thinking. Clearly there are many marriages which are imperfectly happy by reason of uncongeniality but are sustained in being by habit and loyalty to the marriage bond; sexual intercourse plays a significant part in sustaining such marriages. Teaching about marriage ought absolutely not to be irrelevant to the unhappy, and flattering to the lucky. Thus the old vindication of intercourse as "rendering the marriage debt", which many find repellent nowadays, is more realistic than they are; it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.



subtitle suggestion: when sex just isn't sexy
but, is this article a matter of semantics or logic or both?
This is wonderful stuff - I don't know where Anscombe is going with this argument (defending contraception, as your title implies?), but her approach is refreshingly clearheaded. She was trained in the analytic tradition, wasn't she? I think we could use more of this kind of thinking in the Church today.
Could you give the title and source of this article?
Frank McManus
Micki, I'm not sure what you're asking, so re-submit if you wish. But, on a presumption, I'll say that any charge of engaging in semantics cannot be leveled against her, but by her against those who are perennially charged with presenting this teaching to us. Hopefully it will become clearer over the coming weeks.

Mr. McManus, She is most assuredly not defending contraception. She once thought (the only disappointment she ever gave me) that, if it could be shown that its prohibition was cause for an increase in the incidence of abortion, we ought to allow it as the lesser of two evils. But, of this proposed causation, she "soon came to think it an illusion."
The passage I have chosen is from the middle of her essay, and I will do the same next week to finish her thoughts on the contemporary presentation of the nature of marriage, about which she thinks we've been fed a lot "slush", and which makes the teaching on birth control difficult for many to understand. Then we'll return to the beginning and just try to follow her logic. I can't emphasize enough, when it comes to Anscombe, the importance of re-reading.
The article's full title is: "You can have sex without children - Christianity and the new offer." It is the original version of another essay recently linked by Touchstone and which can be found here. My version is from a book called Ethics, Religion and Politics: Collected Philosophical Papers Vol.III, published by the University of Minnesota.
Posted by William Luse
cool. it is an article of both semantics and logic. if i'm not mistaken, ms. anscombe is arguing (in this part of the article at least) that our vocabulary has encouraged a wishy-washy perception of love and marriage, leading to the separation of the marriage act from marriage, thus adding to the pro-contraception/abortion mentality in our society. we have turned Truth and beauty and duty into something saccharine and sentimental.
for example, she writes:
When I read "A Christian husband and wife grow in grace and love together", my first thought is: what if they do not? It would clear the air if we substituted for the sweetness of a rosy picture the bite of a precept: "The commandment to a Christian pair is: grow in grace and love together."
my subtitle was a failed attempt at humor. sorry.
You are one smart cookie. A better synopsis of that passage could not have been executed. And your attempt at humor did not fail. I got it. It wasn't a gut-buster, but it was clever.
Being nit-picky:
I think the title should be: "You can have sex without having children..." otherwise is sounds like you can have sex with children or without children. ick.
you are too kind, mr. luse. i cannot wait to read the next installment
I am having difficulties in reading her, but I appreciate that which I have been able to comprehend. It is very dense and chewy, much like a good fruitcake. I am trying hard not to pick out and nibble on the pecans!
Mary, As an English teacher I ought to back you up on this one, but I've noticed that the British have their own peculiar brand of elliptical constructions, such that the "having" is understood to be there, or a "resulting" following "children." Still, considering the transgressions of our time, I can see why the image occurred to you.

More Anscombe on the new Christian offer

The vestiges of the fasting and abstinence disciplines that are still with us are trivial... But the leaven of the Spirit that always works within the Church - even if it seems not much at work in this way in the present - is bound to show itself some time in a renewed vitality of ascetical ideals and practices. What form these will take we cannot say.

For myself, I should have thought it very difficult for people to make and stick to private rules, with the sort of force New Year's resolutions have: for people who want to strengthen themselves by ascetic training periods, definite known rules appear better than hand-to-mouth attempts to embody some general idea that 'restraint and self-control' are good - perhaps in a context of anxiety about births!

If the relaxation or abandonment of regulations is seen as a lowering of the price of Christianity, it is profoundly ill-conceived. Some clergy, sensitive to modern trends, seem to have been scared into flattering us in our worldliness, our sensuality and our insistence that things go well for us. But what may in the future become a recognized ideal is that a devout and like-minded couple should for ascetical reasons arrange to practise sexual abstinence for short periods. This plan is like a slap in the face for l'homme moyen sensuel, so it is not likely to be commonly adopted; but so far as I know, in spite of St. Paul's authority, this is not at present commonly envisaged even as an ideal plan.

People who followed this plan would be showing that they didn't regard marriage as a license (for some reason, the only one available) to sail on the happy sea of sex - accepting children when they are an earthly blessing - though, alas, the voyage may land you on the rocks of hardship. "But Christians don't regard marriage like that!" I shall be told. "Marriage is a vocation!" What does that mean? Marriage after all - though so often unhappy - is regarded by the world as an obviously desirable state; it is the most common form of life for mankind; then, what makes it a vocation, a special calling? Three things I suggest: absolute commitment by indissoluble vows to this person alone so long as you both live; the work essential to be done for any children there may be; and the abandonment of the claim that one's own will shall dictate which path one takes from among those that offer themselves.

There is a certain ambiguity about this last token of a matrimonial vocation. St. Paul tells us, in a drily factual way, that a husband seeks to please his wife, and a wife her husband, rather than the Lord (that is why it is better not to marry). This description perfectly fits most 'successful' marriages; and if it fits, it is inappropriate to speak of such a life as a vocation - many lay people must surely feel embarrassingly flattered by the word. There is indeed perhaps this much of a title to claim to be pursuing a vocation: that we are committed to, and possibly engaged in, the work of bringing up any children we may have in Christian faith and practice. But upon the whole we enter upon marriage to please ourselves, not as people entering upon a vocation; and within the framework of the commitment and task we have, surely only for very few of us is the rule of life in a marriage that is reasonably happy anything but a pleasing of ourselves and one another. Surely this is the ground for placing marriage second to religious virginity or widowhood; that we have not set the scene with a view to prayer and contemplation and the service of God as our principal concern. This does not mean that we have chosen something bad instead of something good; and the commitment by vow and (if it comes) the task of educating children do something to justify the talk of vocation. In any event, it is a vocation to be a Christian, married or not - and this is called a vocation in Scripture, as marriage is not.

If we really meant that marriage as such is a vocation, then we should be counseling lots of people against it. Really entering into marriage as into a vocation would mean a firm determination that for this marriage it shall not be true that the husband seeks to please his wife, and the wife her husband, rather than to please the Lord; and one might then question whether one had this vocation, if this were the idea one had in mind - and might not want to get married as much as many people in the world do. For it is one good thing about the West that there are various possible ways of life, so that the unmarried do not stick out like sore thumbs. People fairly often assume that at least for a woman it is a poor thing not to get married; but we should rather propagate St. Paul's warning: "Let her marry if she must, but I think she will have trouble in the flesh."

Upon the whole, Christian people neither get married with a sense of such a vocation nor stay unmarried because they feel the lack of it; they marry because they want to, because they must; moreover, they fear loneliness, for is also unusual in the West for unmarried people living in the world to have much community life - the married hive off in boxes, in small family units that exclude outsiders. So people must and will marry; but that doesn't make their marriage a vocation. Having married because you must, you may well accept, as one accepts a vocation, the Christian conditions of indissoluble vows and the work of rearing a family in Christian life. St. Jerome's estimate is just: this is only rye bread, as compared with fine wheat bread of the religious life - and the dung of fornication.

It is the common vocation of any Christian, married or not, to choose to please God rather than man; but I'd rather not be told that I am pursuing this vocation when I seek the comfort and success of myself and my family. Whether I am pursuing it at all depends on whether I'm ready to give all that up immediately, as Sir Thomas More did, if it hindered the submission of my will to God's. And if, in their marriages, people are not actually giving anything up? You may be sure, even if the emergency never arises, that so-and-so loves his child more than his bank account, that he would empty his bank account for his child. But unless so-and-so already practises some asceticism about possessions, it is by no means so certain that, though it has never come to a test, he loves God more than his possessions.

© 1966 from Ethics, Religion, and Politics



love is blind, but marriage is a real eye-opener?
We have lost much in the last 40 years to the 'dumbing-down' process of the English language. 'Vocation' especially, and 'Marriage' no longer carry the same weight of meaning. Another word that has been diminished is 'Profession'.
Anscombe seems to be very selective in his Bible references - he seems to be more focused on Paul's comment that it is "better to marry than to burn". I would also refer to Ephesians where the analogy is made between human marriage and the union of Christ and Church.
What we see now, almost 2 generations after this was written, are the consequences of a population that no longer sees "marriage as a license (for some reason, the only one available) to sail on the happy sea of sex - accepting children..." or (marriage is)"an obviously desirable state; the most common form of life for mankind".
When is it commen to refer to various trades as 'professions', to consider the sexual union of two men or two women as 'marriage', and to consider one's job and career choice as 'vocation' - we lose a lot of the import of all these things.
Orwell had a clue.
Anscombe is a she, not a he, first name Elizabeth. I think she's selective in her Biblical citations because she wants the ones that apply to what most people do when they marry.The line - "Really entering into a marriage as into a vocation would mean a firm determination that for this marriage it shall not be true that the husband seeks to please his wife, and the wife her husband, rather than the Lord" - describes the sort of marriage the image from Ephesians summons up. But she, and St. Paul, know that it doesn't describe most marriages. It is offered to us by the clergy in poetic praise of our unions, to flatter us, but without any hard counsels as to what it actually consists of. Instead, as she said in the previous excerpt, we're offered a lot of "slush."
Bob the Ape
my apologies on the gender confusion - I should have remembered that from the prior post. mea culpa.
I agree that we need more preaching on the meaning of marriage - and not just at weddings.
Thanks for posting this. I've had a hold at the university library on Anscombe's essays on ethics and religion for the past few years now, but the book seems to have gone missing.
Kevin Jones
Write or call the University of Minnesota Press and see if they still have it in print. Or try through your favorite bookstore.

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