Why the Vatican is wrong about contraception

That the Vatican is dead wrong about contraception is obvious enough to most of us. While the secular media trots out statistics claiming that, contrary to Benedict's assertion, condoms actually do help to prevent the transmission of HIV, I don't think statistics are going to change anyone's mind.

I think it's better to argue with the Vatican on the Vatican's own terms, by calling greater attention to the teaching's fatal flaw: it's actually inconsistent with the acceptance of so-called "natural family planning."

There are people who will insist that there is a moral difference between the two. That there is not, however, has been demonstrated rather decisively in a letter written by Fr. Bernard Lonergan in 1968.

I reproduce here a lengthy explanation of Lonergan's brilliant argument that I posted on this blog several years ago, in two parts:

In September 1968, the Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan wrote a letter to another priest in which he explained why the official church teaching about contraception cannot accurately be said to have been derived from natural law. As he points out in the conclusion of the letter, "when there is no valid reason whatever for a precept, that precept is not of natural law" (9).

His refutation of the argument from natural law is brilliant, but some people have difficulty with some of the philosophical terminology. Below are several passages from the letter. Following each one is an explanation that can be understood, I hope, by those without an academic background in philosophy.

Lonergan begins the letter by noting
"that traditional Catholic doctrine on the sexual act followed rigorously from the position adopted by Aristotle in his De generatione animalium. That position was that the seed of the male was an instrumental cause that changed the matter supplied by the female into a sentient being...The efficient causality of the male was needed to produce the sensitive principle or soul. On that basis it was clear that every act of insemination was of itself procreative and that any positive interference was an act of obstructing the seed in its exercise of its efficient causality." (8)
The important thing to understand here is that Aristotle saw the relationship between insemination and conception as simply one of cause-and-effect. Catholic theolgians shared this view and decided that anything that hinders the cause from achieving its intended effect is unacceptable: if God intends that this cause should have that effect, it is wrong to prevent the effect from taking place.
"Two factors, however, have combined to bring about a notable change in the views of Catholic theologians on this matter. The first, of course, is the fact that the Aristotelian position is erroneous. Insemination and conception are known now to be quite distinct. The act of inseminating is not an act of procreating in the sense that of itself, per se, it leads to conception. The relation of insemination to conception is just statistical and, far more frequently than not, insemination does not lead to conception" (8).
It seems odd that people should not have seen reproduction this way sooner, given that most acts of insemination clearly do not lead to a conception. These should have been seen as distinct events, simply because the latter only occasionally follows the former. At any rate, the recognition that the relationship between insemination and conception is statistical has replaced the view that insemination is procreative in and of itself.
"So there arises the question whether this statistical relationship of insemination to conception is sacrosanct and inviolable. Is it such that no matter what the circumstances, the motives, the needs, any deliberate modification of the statistical relationship must always be prohibited?" (8).
Lonergan is asking if it there are any circumstances in which one can do something to change the statistical probability of conception taking place.
"If one answers affirmatively, he is condemning the rhythm method. If negatively, he permits contraceptives in some cases. Like the diaphragm and the pill, the menstrual chart and the thermometer directly intend to modify the statistical relationship nature places between insemination and conception" (8).
This is, I would argue, the crux of the problem, and the failure to recognise this is one of the main reasons why contraception is still being debated in the church. Supporters of the ban on contraception were deprived of the one reasonable argument they could possibly have made by the allowance of "natural family planning." So they argue unreasonably, applying made-up moral principles and concocting all varieties of fallacious arguments. But that is a subject for another day.

From Part II:
"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

The Lonergan letter was published in the Lonergan Studies Newsletter, which is available in PDF format here. It's on pages 8-9 of the first issue in the file.

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