Archive for July, 2017

Sex, Contraception, Abortion, and Roman Catholicism
Father Larry

I don’t know why anyone would design a car radio this way, but my little all electric Fiat has a radio that comes on, whether I want it to or not, every time I turn the key in the ignition. While my generous free trial of satellite radio was still in effect I just left it tuned to the Grateful Dead station – ever since I was a child I have tended to space out a lot and the Grateful Dead’s music is supportive of that endeavor. I probably should just leave the radio set on the Bob and Coe Show (KGB-FM San Diego), but that’s no help after 10:00 a.m. So somehow by default, it’s left for the most part on the Roman Catholic Station. Usually I turn it off as soon as it comes on, but sometimes I leave it long enough to become hypnotized by how fundamentalist Roman Catholicism can be.

For the most part I don’t think whether people classify themselves as conservative or liberal matters terribly. And, those terms each include such a wide swath of people that they are largely meaningless. What, in my often flawed opinion, seems to matter more is what our convictions, whether liberal or conservative make of us. That is, do our beliefs make us more loving, compassionate, kind and helpful? The doctrine of transubstantiation seems to me to be the spiritual imagination trapped in fourth century substance philosophy; but, I have no doubt that many of the great saints have embraced that doctrine. It does annoy me when it is suggested that since I do not accept the notion of transubstantiation, I do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

I have a lot more difficulty with matters that have to do with civil law and public policy – like birth control and abortion. If Roman Catholicism is opposed to all birth control as a matter of deep religious conviction, I can get that. It does puzzle me as to why that issue is such a top priority with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and teachers, I mean it seems to me that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was much more concerned about poverty of spirit, gentleness, peace making, mercy, hunger and thirst for God, generosity and trust than birth control. But I understand and respect that it is an important matter of faith for Roman Catholics. What I don’t particularly respect is the desire of Roman Catholic apologists to have their cake and eat it too; that is, for their educational institutions, like Notre Dame or extensive network of hospitals, to accept massive amounts in tax dollars while suing to be exempted from federal requirements. My suggestion would be, don’t hire thousands of non-Catholics at all professional and working levels, don’t offer expensive medical and educational services for millions of people who are of some other faith, or no faith at all, and then claim that offering insurance that provides birth control violates your conscience. Forego the government money, and be free to follow your conscience with integrity and no public scorn. The reality is that 98% of all Roman Catholic women who have had sex, have practiced birth control measures other than the “natural method.” If a church is essentially its people, then in light of this statistic, Roman Catholicism is not opposed to birth control – birth control does not, in fact, violate the conscience of most North American Catholics.

I understand, of course, that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that it is intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence. Contraception is wrong, it is argued, because it is a deliberate violation of God’s natural order built into the human race. The natural law or purpose of sex, the argument says, is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, designed to encourage human mating with the intended result, or possibility, of new life. At the same time, sexual intimacy within marriage, strengthens the mutual love and respect between husband and wife which is necessary for nurturing new life, not only physically and intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually. I agree with that. However, the Old Testament is filled with instances where a positive view is taken of human sexual pleasure itself with no mention of procreation:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man and woman.
(Proverbs 30:18-19)

The Song of Songs is an intensely sexual book. It is most likely a collection of ancient songs sung during the week long celebration of Hebrew marriages. Its metaphors are poetically graphic and highly erotic. And while these songs are sung within the context of a marriage celebration, there is nothing in them about procreation as the justification of their sexual passion – such passion and its fulfillment is seen in the Old Testament as a gift from God which may be celebrated within itself. One might make a silly argument that the natural purpose of wine is to quench thirst, but the Bible says that as God gave food to sustain our strength, so wine was given “to gladden our hearts” (Psalm 104:15). Both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about the abuse of wine as well as sex, and how each can wreak terrible devastation, but both wine and sex, from a biblical point of view, are gifts of God meant to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. They need no further justification than that.

There is no where in Scripture, any explicit or implicit prohibition against birth control. The Old Testament does say children are a gift from God; and, O’ they are. We loved our son and daughter before they were conceived. Now they have their families and we mostly lavish our parental affection and concerns on the dog. Children are a gift from God, but we can be content and prize two as readily as twelve. Genesis 38:8-10 has sometimes been used as evidence that birth control is a sin, specifically coitus interruptus as a method of preventing the conception and birth of a child:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

Onan’s sin is not “spilling his seed on the ground,” it is his unwillingness to impregnate his brother’s widow in order to perpetuate his brother’s “name” and “rights.” A strange idea for us, but what was expected in the ancient culture of the Middle East. To read this as a text speaking to the issue of birth control is to read into the text what is simply not there.

The New Testament recognizes that sex is always about more than sex. It involves an intimacy, and emotional and spiritual bonding that goes beyond the physical act of intercourse.  “For this cause,” say Saint Paul, “shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” The logical conclusion of Roman Catholic theology would be that sex, even within marriage, without the possibility of producing a child cannot lead to a deep and genuine spiritual intimacy, and as countless couples unable to have children, or who have practiced birth control know, that is utter nonsense. Those searching for a larger meaning and purpose to sex and marriage, will find it in something beyond procreation – it will be found in the mystery of how two people becoming one points to the even greater mystery of becoming one with Christ.

Roman Catholic dogma does, of course, approve the rhythm, or “natural” method, in which a couple abstains from sexual intercourse during the time the woman is believed to be most likely to conceive. The insistence that this is some how different from “artificial” methods of birth control is mere sophistry. Whether a couple practices the “natural method” as approved by the Roman Church, uses condoms, the pill, resorts to a vasectomy, or tying the fallopian tubes, it is all essentially the same in that the intent is to prevent the conception of a child, and in the New Testament intentions are always of critical significance.

Opposition to the “morning after pill” as a means of contraception rests on a different premise. The Roman Church sees the morning after pill as a form of abortion, and believes abortion to be wrong under any circumstance and for any reason. The central issue then becomes, “When does human life begin?” According to Roman Catholic theology life begins at conception. Taking the morning after pill is, therefore, abortion, or certainly potentially the abortion of a child. This just seems so, I don’t know, medieval.

In the sixteenth century, but perhaps as far back as the third century, many, especially among the alchemists, held to the idea of the homunculus — a supposed microscopic but fully formed human being contained in sperm and from which a fetus was believed to develop. Trent Horn, an excellent recognized Roman Catholic apologist, makes basically the same argument using a more modern scientific understanding. Trent asserts, if I correctly understand him, that since all the genetic coding, all the biochemical mathematics, necessary for that zygote, the fertilized ovum, to become a fully developed human being are present it is a living child. He illustrates his point with the twentieth century process of polaroid photography. When you took a photograph using a Polaroid camera, the picture was developed on the spot inside the camera. When it first came out of the camera it just looked like a brown smudge until it had a few moments to fully develop. Suppose, Trent Horn says, you are on a boat on that famous Lake in Scotland, and you take a Polaroid picture of the Loch Ness Monster. You immediately hand the photo paper that has come out of the camera to a friend saying, “Here’s a photo of the Loch Ness Monster.” Your friend looks at it and then tosses it overboard. “Too bad,” says your friend, “that was just a brown smudge and not the Loch Ness Monster.”

You would respond, suggests Trent, angrily and shout, “No! That was a picture of the Loch Ness Monster; you just didn’t give it enough time to develop in order for you to recognize it, now it’s gone forever.” Trent’s analogy is that just as everything necessary for that piece of polaroid paper to develop into a pictures was right there in that brown smudge, so everything necessary for a diploid cell to become a fully developed human being is right there as the ovum is fertilized.

An interesting analogy, but one which ignores the enormous gulf between potentiality and actuality. When that paper with the brown smudge comes out of the camera it is not a photograph, but rather has the potential of becoming a photograph. With the fusing of those two haploid gametes the potential exists, a process initiated, that, if all goes well, will result in about nine months in the birth of a human life. But to refer to that fusion as a human life, strains the scientific and psychological imaginations of even devout Christians.

When asked about abortion in the case of incest or rape, Trent Horn’s response as a Roman Catholic apologist, is that the child conceived in rape or incest is just as innocent as the mother and should be just as protected from suffering. But he is begging the question, stating as a fact the very thing to be proved; namely, that a zygote, or embryo, or undifferentiated mass of tissue without consciousness, brain, or intelligence is in fact a child – a living human being. Nor do I understand how ending a potential pregnancy by taking the “morning after pill,” say in the case of rape, saves a “child” from suffering that is equal to or greater than that of the mother – who is, at least biologically, a fully living human being. And to tell a couple, that has discovered that any child they conceive is likely to have serious birth defects, that it is a sin to use contraception, is incomprehensible to me – so cruel, barbaric, stupid and irresponsible as to be un-Christian.

But to reiterate, it is difficult to believe, scientifically, that an undifferentiated mass of cells is a human child. But how about biblically? What does Scripture actually say? The answer is not much, and nothing that is helpful to the Roman Catholic argument. The Torah, for example, says this in Exodus 21:22-25:

And if men struggle with each other and one strikes a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judge decides. But if there is any further injury to the woman, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

In spite of the numerous convoluted explanations by Roman Catholics attempting to make this passage mean something other than what it plainly says, the gist of its straightforward interpretation remains: If two or more men get into a fight and a pregnant woman who is present is injured and miscarries, loses her baby, then the man who injured her must pay a fine for causing the miscarriage. But note that he is not guilty of murder. He is neither accused of nor punished for homicide – as he would have been had the woman herself died. Under the Law of Moses given on Sinai, for the death of a fetus one is fined, for the death of a woman, pregnant or not, one is executed. Why is that?

The simple and demonstrable explanation is this. The ancient Hebrews, of what Christians commonly refer to as the Old Testament, did not believe that life begins at conception. They thought that life begins as the fetus exits the birth canal. Up to that point the fetus was considered to still be a part of its mother and not an individual person. To cause the death of the fetus was to injure the mother, but it was not to murder another human being. This is not only the Old Testament perspective, but of the Talmud as well. In standard print the Talmud, dating from sometime before the fifth century B.C.E. is over 6,200 pages long. It contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on a wide range of subjects, and for Judaism is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. As noted above, the Talmud unambiguously sees human life as beginning once the fetus has partially exited the birth canal. It is only at that point that the life of the child is to be saved at the expense of the mother.

It is now decades ago that I came across Albert Schweitzer’s phrase, “reverence for life,” as an expression of his own Christian understanding and philosophy. I thought it beautiful then, and I think it beautiful now – would that I could live into it far more deeply and richly. I have the utmost admiration for those, who out of their love for Christ, reverence all life. But I find myself wondering at times, how can I claim to love unborn children whom I have never seen, if I do not love all the hungry, homeless, desperate children I can see. I hope you will understand me when I say that reverence for life requires something more than dogmatically denouncing abortion; or, screaming that women who have abortions are murderers and baby killers, or embracing contraception as one of the great existential evils and spiritual threats of our time. Reverence for life requires a loving wisdom that precious few of us seem to possess. Nevertheless, I am thankful that my own denomination, the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, encourages me to see these issues in the light of pastoral reflection.

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