Home » A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception

A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception

from The Sexual Person
Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology pp. 184-191.
Published by Georgetown University Press 2008

by Todd A Salzman & Michael G Lawler

We turn now to our renewed principle and its concomitant further principle to ask what light they may throw on the debate over contraception. The renewed principle, to refresh your memory, is articulated as follows: “[Conjugal] love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the marital act. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses [immediately] enrich each other [and mediately enrich their family and community] with a joyful and thankful will.”

The further principle is that, to be moral, sexual acts must be just and loving. The consideration of both principles leads to the conclusion that some heterosexual and some homosexual acts, those that are holistically complementary, just, and loving, are moral; and that some heterosexual and some homosexual acts, those that are not holistically complementary, just, and loving, are immoral. The question here is do these principles have any contribution to make to the discussion of the morality of artificially contraceptive acts. We shall argue that they do.

The love relationship between a man and a woman is transformed into a marriage, an “intimate partnership of life and love,”(111) by the valid legal ritual of then wedding. The wedding transforms the man and the woman into husband and wife. If their shared love is matched by their shared faith in the God revealed in Christ, their wedding can also be a religious ritual that transforms their relationship into a sacrament of the relationship between Christ and Christ’s Church.(112) The root relationship or bond of these three, the relationship or bond that requires constant nurture for the support of the other two, is not the legal bond arising from wedding or the religious bond arising from sacrament. It is the relationship or bond arising from the mutual love in which the spouses affirm one another as good and equal selves, the very love that leads them in the first instance to commit to join their love The root relationship or bond of these three, the relationship or bond that requires constant nurture for the support of the other two, is not the legal bond arising from wedding or the religious bond arising from sacrament. It is the relationship or bond arising from the mutual love in which the spouses affirm one another as good and equal selves, the very love that leads them in the first instance to commit to join their love and their life for as long as life lasts in marriage.(113) Though ” marriage and married love are by nature ordered to the procreation and education of children, . . . marriage is not merely for the procreation of children. Its nature as an indissoluble covenant between two people and the good of the children demand that the mutual love of the spouses be properly shown, that it should grow and mature.” (114)

In the contemporary Catholic tradition pace Grisez and his colleagues, marriage has two equal, nonhierarchical ends, the mutual love of the spouses and the procreation of children. Any doubt about the Second Vatican Council’s intentions with respect to the equality of the ends of marriage and Acta Synodalia Concilii Vaticani II, as we have already demonstrated, shows that there is no possibility of legitimate doubt was removed by the revised Code of Canon Law: “The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a consortium of their whole life, and which of its very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children.”  (115) Marriage has two equal ends, the mutual love of the spouses and the procreation of children, with no hierarchical distinction between them. The equality of the ends in Gaudium et spes and in the Code necessarily changes the traditional argument about the morality of contraception. Our principle for the hermeneutics of sexual acts in marriage is focused on these two equal ends.

When a man and a woman are wedded, their human “nature” is transformed by the ritual; it is specified as definitively wedded. The partners are no longer the individual man and individual woman they were prior to the ritual; they have been made, rather, ritually and definitively coupled spouses, the biblical two-in-one- flesh.(116) Spouses are humans who have given themselves in loving intention to one another, have taken mutual responsibility for their separate and communal lives, and have promised to be permanently faithful to the covenant responsibilities they have pledged one to the other for the whole of life. It is in the context of that mutual, covenantal, spousal, just, and loving self-gift that the morality of their marital acts, including the acts of sexual intercourse, have meaning.

In their real historical, as distinct from some ideal and ahistorical, experience, human beings are fallible, prone to sin, and live their lives within variously sinful structures. Their concrete “nature,” the Catholic tradition universally teaches, is a sinful, wounded “nature,” always in need of salvation. Though spouses can intend their love and mutual self-gift to be total and indissoluble, in the concrete reality of their woundedness they cannot make them total and indissoluble at any given moment of their life, for love and self-gift reach out into the unknown, unpredictable, and uncontrollable future. All they can do, in Margaret Farley’s wise words, is “initiate in the present a new form of relationship that will endure in the form of fidelity or betrayal.” This they do by their ritual consent at their wedding, and their covenantal commitment to one another “is [their] love’s way of being whole while it still grows into wholeness.” (117) In Catholic theological language, marital love, like the love of God and love of neighbor, is essentially eschatological; that is, it reaches its totality only in the eschaton or end of marital life, not during and certainly not at the beginning of it. This eschatological quality of human love, allied to the sinful human structures that constantly threaten it, makes marital love “naturally” unfinished, imperfect, and fragile.

Totality and the Conjugal Act

The above discussion raises a question about the position on totality adopted, for instance, by Pope John Paul II and the traditionalists who uncritically follow him. The pope writes that “sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The totalphysical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving. . . . This totality which is required by conjugal love also corresponds to the demands of responsible fertility.” (118)

We agree with Lisa Cahill that “the cumulative effect of such rhetoric is to hit married couples over the head with an unattainable norm for their conduct—one which, moreover, is hardly left at the level of ideal, being translated into rules for action of the most concrete and absolute sort.” (119) There is no problem offering a moral ideal to spouses; there is a major problem offering absolute, concrete rules that take no account of historical circumstances that can modify the ideal.

Cahill is correct in identifying the problem with this papal and traditionalist argument. It is not conducted on the level of abstract principle to be interpreted and specified according to concrete circumstance, as the abstract principle “Thou shall not kill,” for example, is interpreted in the Catholic moral tradition. The tradition interprets “Thou shall not kill” to mean “Thou shall not directly kill an innocent person,” but you can morally kill an aggressor in proportionate self-defense or in a just war. The pope’s traditionalist argument about the meaning of sexual intercourse is conducted not on the level of principle but on the level of absolute concrete rule that applies in each and every circumstance and admits of no exception. We have already pointed out in this book the difficulty of translating absolute moral principle into concrete moral norm. We agree with Cahill that, in keeping with their interpretation of human “nature” as “pure nature” and their total ignoring of concrete human experience, traditionalists read human experience “through the lens of the advocated teaching, and assume an ideal and abstract character little reflective of the give-and-take of enduring sexual relationships, especially marriage.” (120)Our approach interprets human “nature” as the concrete, socially constructed “nature” persons share in the less than ideal and frequently wounded and messy circumstances of their real, historical lives. In the concrete “nature” of love and marriage, Cahill’s “give-and-take of enduring sexual relationships,” the “nature” of human love, and of the marriage that is intended to serve its growth to fullness, is unfinished, imperfect, fragile, and far from total.

Although it is not possible for humans to emulate fully the total love of God and to love totally, there is a totality involved when that love is covenanted between two free and equal human beings in marriage. This totality is the totality of the couples’ relationship as it is personalized, legalized, and covenanted in marriage and the totality of the family they create together. The totality of the marriage embraces the good of each partner, the good of their relationship, and the good of any children who may be born from their marital intercourse. Any decision about the morality of any marital act, including but not restricted to the act of marital intercourse, has to consider not only the so-called objective act but also how and where that act fits in the totality of these various goods. Once it is conceded, as Gaudium et spes and the Code of Canon Law concede, that marital love and relationship and procreation are equal ends of marriage, then the judgment about the morality of artificial contraception cannot be made on the exclusive basis of pure “nature” and the interpretation of its relatively rare biological outcome.

The Inseparability Principle Revisited

Paul VI argues in Humanae vitae that God has established an inseparable connection between “the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.” (121) John Paul II cites this claim with no further elaboration.(122) No proof is offered by either pope in support of this claim, Paul VI simply opining that “we believe our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.” (123) This lack of proof or reason and the fact that many of our educated contemporaries do not see this teaching in harmony with human reason has been a major cause of the debate over Paul VIs claims. It can be argued that Paul himself promoted the debate via an apparent internal contradiction in his argument. In the paragraph immediately preceding his claim of the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significances of marital intercourse, he appears to have argued the contrary. Marital intercourse does not cease to be “legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening [sign and cause] of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed.” (124) Here Paul is approving the act of intercourse even when it is known that there is no possibility of procreation, and the basis for his approval seems to be precisely that the act is still directed toward signifying and causing marital love and union.

In these infertile acts, the unitive and procreative aspects are not only separable but also actually separated by the pope. The encyclical, at this point, seems to imply a factual separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of individual acts of sexual intercourse during the infertile period. Paul VI even ascribes this separation of unitive and procreative significance to the wise plan of God: “God has wisely disposed natural laws and times of fertility in order that, by themselves, they might separate subsequent [or the succession of] births.” Genovesi judges that the pope might just as well have written that “God has wisely disposed natural laws and rhythms of fertility that, by themselves, cause a separation in the two meanings of the conjugal act as procreative and unitive.” (125) With such evidence in support, and lack of compelling proof in nonsupport, it is no wonder that the claim of the inseparable connection between unitive and procreative meanings of marital sexual intercourse has been widely and convincingly challenged.

It appears that by “nature” and the wise design of God, widely verified in world­wide human experience, there are two kinds of natural sexual intercourse, one that is conceptive and one that is nonconceptive. We deny the truth of the proposition that the unitive meaning of sexual intercourse is a universally natural meaning of the sexual act. The unitive meaning is “natural” only as socially interpreted in Western culture. We have no doubt that the procreative and unitive dimensions of marital intercourse are intimately related, particularly in the sense that they are both good for children, the one to procreate a new child, the other to ensure the successful nurture and education of that child. That they are absolutely inseparable, however, is far from demonstrated, especially because it can be argued legitimately that procreation is a “natural” physiological outcome of only some intercourse and that union of the spouses is a “natural” Western cultural outcome of every just and loving intercourse.

Accepting without debate Paul VI’s unproven assertion of the inseparable connection between the two ends of marriage and the two intrinsic meanings of sexual intercourse in marriage, John Paul II judges “natural” and artificial birth control on the basis of his “totality” argument:

When couples, by means of recourse to contraception, separate these two mean­ings that God the Creator has inscribed in the being of man and woman and in the dynamism of their sexual communion, they act as arbiters of the divine plan and they manipulate and degrade human sexuality—and with it themselves and their married partner—by altering its value of total self-giving. Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.(126)

Again, this totality argument, which we would not challenge as an ideal for couples, founders on the rock of concrete circumstances where ideals get concretized as moral rules. The argument John Paul offers here against contraception is equally applicable to natural family planning, in which couples clearly act as “arbiters” of their marital intercourse and “alter” its value of total self-giving by intentionally deciding to have intercourse at a time when they judge that the wife is infertile. Indeed, in the face of the evidence, both scientific and experiential, that women in general experience the peak of their sexual desire and responsiveness immediately before, during, and after ovulation,(127) it is arguable that the decision not to have intercourse at that time is acting against total self-giving and nature, at least as much as any act of artificial contraception.

Recalling what was argued in chapter 2 about “nature”—that the reality of “nature” is always interpreted by human reason in particular historical contexts—we contend that our argument for the morality of marital intercourse using artificial methods to prevent the conception of a child is an argument from “nature” every bit as much as the traditionalist argument. The difference is that we argue from the “nature” of marriage and the “nature” of not human beings in general but spouses andparents in particular, the nature of husband and wife and of father and mother. All these common terms are essentially relative terms; that is, they have meaning only in relation to some other term and reality. “Husband” is a term that refers to a man’s relationship to a woman who is his “wife”; “wife” is a term that refers to a woman’s relationship to a man who is her “husband.” “Father” is a term that refers to a man’s relationship to another human called his “child”; “mother” is a term that refers to a woman’s relationship to another human called her “child”; “child” is a term that refers to a person’s relationship to a man called “father” and a woman called “mother.” Our argument focuses on two of those relationships, that between spouses and that between parents and their child(ren).

Moral judgment that has to be made on contraception, whether natural or artificial, has to be made on a basis that includes what is good for the couple, their marriage, and any children previously born of their marital intercourse. Adhering to the Catholic tradition that the generation of children and parenthood are defining characteristics of marriage that deserve to be both respected and preserved, our argu­ment is that it is marriage itself and not each and every marital act that is to be open to the transmission of life and parenthood. This argument is akin to the judgment already convincingly advanced by the majority of the Papal Commission in 1967, though we offer a different foundation for it. Human intervention in the process of the marriage act for reasons drawn from the end of marriage itself that is, from the good of the spouses, their marital relationship, and any children born of their marital intercourse—should not always be excluded, provided that the Catholic criteria of morality are always safeguarded. The two phrases we have underscored are at the heart of this principle.

We hold, with NNLT, that marriage is a basic human good in the abstract and also a basic human good in the concrete for every committed and covenanted couple. We hold also that the marital act of sexual intercourse is a basic human good in the concrete but, as we have already explained, we do not agree with NNLT that marital sexual intercourse is a good that can never be instrumentalized for the sake of some other good. The Catholic tradition, as we have demonstrated and need not repeat again, is a thoroughly sacramental tradition. This means that one human good can be and is used as sacrament, that is, as sign and causal instrument, of a higher good. With Gaudium et spes, we embody this sacramental tradition in our overarching principle in the words “expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions signify and promote [or cause] that mutual self-giving by which spouses immediately enrich each other and their marriage,” and we apply it in our approach to the question of the morality of sexual marital intercourse.

Our argument is clear. Procreation is undoubtedly a good of marriage but, in the Catholic tradition advanced by Pius XII and Paul VI, it is not an essential good without which marriage could not exist. It can be avoided for “serious reasons,(128) just reasons, (129) worthy and weighty reasons, (130) even “probable reasons.” (131) The covenanted union of life and love, the traditional consortio vitae, that is the very essence of marriage and that is scientifically documented as necessary for the education and nurture part of procreation to be successful is, conversely, a necessary good of marriage. The loving and just union of the spouses is a necessary good of marriage, for the spouses, their children, and the communities, civil and religious, in which they live. It is not difficult to see why the not-necessary marital good of procreation can on occasion give way to the necessary goods embodied in marriage itself, not because it is a lesser good per se but because, on this specific occasion and for these just, serious, and weighty reasons, it is for the good of the spouses and the good of any children they may have. We argue that, to be moral, both conceptive and natural and artificial contraceptive intercourse must take place within the context of these various marital and familial goods. The demands of the good of marriage, the good not only of the couple but also of their children, can on occasion take priority over the good of procreation. A compromise may be needed between the good of the spouses and the good of procreation, the now-equal goods of marriage according to Catholic teaching. Not every married couple need procreate, or even be open to procreation, every time they have intercourse; indeed, as Pius XII taught, not every couple need procreate at all.

There is virtually no debate among Catholic theologians about the foregoing. The debate is about the means that may be taken to prevent procreation. The Catholic moral tradition is unanimous: Not only must a chosen end be moral but also the means chosen to achieve that end must be moral. The end of supporting my family is a perfectly moral end; working as an accountant for a construction company is a perfectly moral means to achieve that end, but stealing from the construction company is not a moral means to achieve that end. Our question here is what means may be used to achieve the perfectly moral end of precluding procreation. Our answer is that, when spouses have a serious, just, and weighty marital or familial reason to preclude procreation in a specific concrete circumstance, procreation can be precluded by any means that does not damage their complementary, just, loving marital or parental relationship, and is not otherwise immoral. The rational basis for such a judgment, to repeat, is the nature of both the marital and familial relationship and the necessary goods associated with them, which, when a serious, just, and weighty reason is present, take precedence, as we have explained, over the good of procreation.

Conclusion

This chapter has been about marital morality and, of necessity in the Catholic tradition, about birth control as an important issue in marital morality within our foundational principle, namely, that sexual acts within marriage by which a couple is united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy and, when expressed in a manner that is truly human and justly loving, signify and promote that mutual self-giving whereby spouses enrich each other, their family, and their community with a joyful and thankful will. It has situated marital morality, therefore, in a context not of individual marital acts but of the overall marital relationship. In this context, it has argued and concluded that some intentionally conceptive and some intentionally nonconceptive marital acts, whether achieved “naturally” or artificially, are moral, namely, those that promote the complementary, just, and loving marital relationship between the spouses and/or the just and loving relationship between parents and their children. It argued further that some intentionally conceptive and some intentionally nonconceptive acts, whether achieved “naturally” or artificially, are immoral, namely, those that damage the complementary, just, and loving relationship between the spouses and/or the just and loving relationship between parental spouses and their children. The morality of any act of marital intercourse is determined, as it is always determined in the Catholic moral tradition, not only by the act of intercourse itself but also by the intention of the spouses following a conscientious and integral examination of the marital and familial circumstances in which the act is performed. We conclude similarly regarding homosexual and nonreproductive heterosexual sexual acts. Some homosexual and nonreproductive heterosexual sexual acts are moral, namely, those that promote the complementary, just, and loving relationship between the spouses or couple and/or the just and loving relationship between parental spouses or a couple and their children. Some homosexual and nonreproductive heterosexual sexual acts are immoral, namely, those that damage the complementary, just, and loving relationship between a couple and/or the just and loving relationship between a couple and their children.

Foot Notes

112. See Lawler, Marriage in the Catholic Church, 1-26.

113. Ibid., 66-91.

114. GS, 50; emphasis added.

115. Can. 1055; emphasis added.

116. See Audrey Richards, Chisurigu (London: Faber, 1956), 120-21; and Michael G. Lawler, Symbol and Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1995), 5-15.

117. Margaret Farley, Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (San Fran­cisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 34.

118. FC, 11; emphasis added. John Paul repeats this argument, though in slightly different terms, in FC, 32. Paul M. Quay, “Contraception and Conjugal Love,” TS 22 (1961): 18-40, had argued in the same way twenty years prior to FC. Smith, inHumanae vitae, 108-12, does not so much argue the position as cite with favor both Quay and John Paul II, allowing her to conclude that “the evil of contraception, then, is that it belies the truth that the ‘language of our bodies’ should be expressing: the truth that we are seeking complete union with the beloved” (p. 112).

119. Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Human Sexuality,” in Moral Theology: Challenges for the Future, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 198.

120. Ibid., 199.

121.HV, 12.

122. FC, 32.

123. HV, 12.

124. Ibid., 11.

125. Vincent J. Genovesi, In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1966), 194; emphasis in original.

126. FC, 32; emphasis added.

127. See, e.g., John R. Cavanagh, MD, “The Rhythm of Sexual Desire in the Human Female,” Bulletin of the Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists 14 (1967): 87-100. Cavanagh was a member of the Papal Commission who originally was a strong advocate of periodic abstinence but, instructed by the commission’s debates, changed his opposition to artificial contracep­tion. For more on Cavanagh, see Charles E. Curran, Critical Concerns in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216-24. See also June M. Rein- isch and Ruth Beasley, The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 119; and Tender, Catholics and Contraception, 225.

128. HV., 10.

129. Ibid., 16.

130. Ibid.

131. Ibid.