Lonergan on Contraception, Part II

In my last post I described the first of two factors that Bernard Lonergan claims precipitated the change in thinking about contraception among Catholic theologians. Now I will describe the second factor.
"Besides erroneous Aristotelian biology there has been another factor leading to the change in Catholic theological opinion. It is that sexual intercourse between man and wife both expresses and fosters their mutual love. This is fully acknowledged in Vatican II and also in Humanae vitae. Aristotle treated not marital intercourse but generation as common to all animals. His oversight has been corrected by contemporary phenomenological inquiry." (8)
One thing one notices when reading Aristotle's De generatione animalium is precisely the fact that humans are treated as just another kind of animal. While it is certainly the case that animals generally have sex for no reason other than procreation, it was absurd to suggest that this is the only reason humans should have sex. And yet this attitude shaped Catholic thinking for many centuries. Abandoning the Jewish view that sexual pleasure is itself a gift of God, Catholic theologians adopted the Stoic view that sexual acts that were not specifically aimed at procreation were immoral.

Jerome denied that the church appoved "of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children" and asserted that "all sexual intercourse is unclean" (Adversus Jovinianum 1.20). Augustine made the same claim (see De Bono Conjugali, esp. §6). This view was softened somewhat over time, and Aquinas held that sexual acts could be "without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation" (ST II-II 153.2).

The notion that sex might have purposes other than sex appears to have first been suggested by Pius XI:
"For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved." (Casti Connubii §59)
With the Second Vatican Council, procreation was no longer the only primary end of the marital act (cf. Gaudium et Spes §48). The encyclical Humanae Vitae by Paul VI reflected this. But there was still a flaw in the reasoning of that encyclical. As Lonergan explains,
"While the Encyclical acknowledges the "unitive sense" of marital intercourse, it claims that inseparable from it there is a "procreative sense." This would be easy enough to understand if one still clung to Aristotle's biology. But on contemporary biology, if insemination may be said to be inseparable from normal intercourse, conception cannot be said to be inseparable from insemination. The discharge of two million spermatozoa into the vagina does not mean or intend two million babies. Most of the time it does not mean or intend any babies at all. The relationship of insemination to conception is not the relation of a per se cause to a per se effect. It is a statistical relationship relating a sufficiently long and random series of inseminations with some conceptions." (9)

A typical married couple will have sex many times, but only a small fraction of these will result in children. On the other hand, it is quite possible that every act could serve as "an expression and sustainer of love" (9). To say that procreation is the primary purpose of marital intercourse, or that the unitive purpose of sex is inseparable from the "procreative sense," makes no sense when one considers that sex only rarely results in conception.

Lonergan's conclusion:
"I have concentrated on what I consider the main issue. Much seems deliberately done to obscure it. The issue is not whether or not people have to have reasons for accepting the Pope's decision. The issue is that, when there is no valid reason whatever for a precept, that precept is not of natural law. Again, re dissent, Vatican II refused to oblige theologians to silence after the Pope determined controverted issues." (9)
Lonergan's point, then, is not that Paul VI was necessarily wrong to condemn contraception, but that he was wrong to claim that the teaching is derived from natural law. Natural law is morality as determined by reason. There is no reasonable argument against contraception, so there is nothing in natural law to support the condemnation of contraception.

Some defenders of the official teaching have acknowledged that the natural law argument is incorrect. Still, they insist that the magisterium could not have erred, so the condemnation will have to stand on some other grounds. Here is a quotation from John Ford (a Jesuit who was involved in drafting Humanae Vitae) and Germain Grisez:
"The Church cannot substantially err in teaching a very serious doctrine of faith or morals through all the centuries -- even through one century -- a doctrine consistently and insistently proposed as one necessarily to be followed in order to attain eternal salvation…If the Church could err as atrociously as this, the authority of the ordinary magisterium in moral matters would be stultified; and the faithful henceforth could have no confidence in moral teaching handed down by the magisterium, especially in sexual questions." ("Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium," 302-303)
This exercise in desperation theology falls immediately flat when we consider previous reversals of doctrines that had been taught for centuries: the condemnations of usury and religious freedom, as well as the teaching that slavery was morally licit, to name the most obvious examples. Should we have no confidence in the magisterium because of those?

There was a time, before Humanae Vitae, when the magisterium could have changed its teaching, and relatively little damage would have been done. Contraception would have joined usury, slavery, and religious freedom as something the magisterium used to teach differently about, and people would have been as broken up about it as they are about the earlier changes. Instead, Paul VI and (especially) JPII went the other way, condemning contraception with great vehemence and thereby staking the credibility of the magisterium on this very issue. I know I'm not the only one who thinks that will prove to have been a very grave error.

Works Cited



Blogger Nicole Weeks said...

Very thought provoking and informative. Thank you for the direct quotes. I know that takes a lot of time and work.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Talmida said...

How did I miss this post, Pear? This is brilliantly laid out. I think I may have to link to it.

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Mike Jones said...

In "Reason Informed by Faith" by Gula, he states on page 239 that there two interpretations of natural law. One is called order of nature, and the other the order of reason. When you state that something has to be reasonable to be natural law you are refering to only one of those interpretations. On the next page Gula points out that the Church has applied these interpretations inconsistantly and lists documents in a table showing which interpretation dominated. If it has to do with sex, the chruch choose the order of nature. If it has to do with social concerns, the church followed the order of reason. If you want to clain that natural law has to be reasonable, you have to argue that the order of reason interpretation is the only valid one.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Mike Jones said...

Could you explain by something having to be reasonable to be natural law? You may not mean what Gula means by an order of reason interpretation. You may just mean that cause and effect have to be present.

10:01 PM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Note that the assertion that something must be reasonable to be of natural law is from Lonergan: "when there is no valid reason whatever for a precept, that precept is not of natural law."

However, this is how I have always understood natural law as well. This distinction between "order of reason" and "order of nature" is not something I've ever heard of before, so I can't really comment on it.

Thank you for your comments.

12:58 AM  
Anonymous Mike Jones said...

To explore the "order of nature" and "order of reason" approaches to natural law, see my post http://backstreetblog.com/?p=112

This will give you the idea without reading Gula's book. This post accepts Gula's description and I take a position on which order has priority and the result on sexual ethics.

9:48 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.