Archive for the 'Ethics' Category

(More) Chesterton on Birth Control

… If [the Birth-Controller] can prevent his servants from having families, he need not support those families. Why the devil should he?

If anybody doubts that this is the very simple motive, let him test it by the very simple statements made by various Birth-Controllers like the Dean of St. Paul’s. They never do say that we suffer from a too bountiful supply of bankers or that cosmopolitan financiers must not have such large families. They do not say that the fashionable throng at Ascot wants thinning, or that it is desirable to decimate the people dining at the Ritz or the Savoy…

But the Birth-Controllers have not the smallest desire to control that jungle. It is much too dangerous a jungle to touch. It contains tigers. They never do talk about a danger from the comfortable classes. The Gloomy Dean is not gloomy about there being too many Dukes; and naturally not about there being too many Deans. He is not primarily annoyed with a politician for having a whole population of poor relations, though places and public salaries have to found for all relations. Political Economy means that everybody except politicians must be economical.

The Birth-Controller does not bother about all these things, for the perfectly simple reason that it is not such people that he wants to control. What he wants to control is the populace, and he practically says so. He always insists that a workman has no right to have so many children, or that a slum is perilous because it produces so many children. The question he dreads is “Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?” His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house, but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: “You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice. I will deprive myself of your children.”

— G. K. Chesterton, quoted from Gilbert Magazine, Volume 12 Number 8 (July/August 2009)


Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

Sexual Appetite

Oh, the images that C. S. Lewis can create! This intriguing comparison between the appetite for food and the appetite for sex creates one of the more memorable passages from Mere Christianity:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological pupose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much; but not terifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and perposterous excess of its function.

Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

Condoms and HIV

As I’ve noted before on this blog, the public discourse on sex is remarkably full of willful ignorance or just plain hypocrisy. Here is another example, this time from the pen of Joseph Bottum, who is now writing the “While We’re At It” blurbs for First Things. From the May 2009 Issue:

Our friend Dimitri Cavalli writes to say that the outrage over the pope’s claim in Africa that condoms makes things worse brings to mind a story about the late Dr. Theresa Crenshaw. A sex therapist, she attended the 1987 World Congress of Sexology in Heidelberg—and asked the audience of eight hundred professionally trained sexologists, “If you had available the partner of your dreams and knew that that person carried HIV, how many of you would depend on a condom for your protection?” No one raised a hand. She then chided the audience for giving ordinary ­people advice that none of them would follow for ­themselves.

The Problem With Birth Control

baby-with-puppyBecause I think controversial topics are often the things most worth talking about, I offer this reflection. It should come as no surprise that reading G. K. Chesterton has sparked what follows. In one of his essays contained in The Well and the Shallows (Ignatius 2006), Chesterton puts forth three reasons why he “despises” birth-control. His first reason takes issue with the term itself.

I despise Birth-Control first because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly word. It is also an entirely meaningless word; and is used so as to curry favour even with those who would at first recoil from its real meaning. The proceeding these quack doctors recommend does not control any birth. It only makes sure that there shall never be any birth to control.

Chesterton believes “Birth-Prevention” would be the far more honest term to use. Of course, he is right. And here we come to one of the objections to the Catholic Church’s position on birth-control in particular and contraception in general. Why is it that the Church allows for the prevention of birth via approved means, commonly known as “natural family planning”, while condemning the exact same result (birth prevention) through other means, such as the pill? On the surface this is a perfectly legitimate question and one that should be dealt with squarely. However, I am afraid that in the end this question is guilty of a blurring of distinctions between the two methods in question. As the dictum goes: distinctions! distinctions! distinctions! We must mind our distinctions!

The Catholic Church is not against the prevention of birth per se. There may be very legitimate reasons why a couple may put off having a child. These reasons are primarily between that couple and God (and possibly a spiritual director), and as such the Church cannot (and does not) make a blanket judgment in these matters. We are only to be “open to life”, but this does not entail that every sexual act is to produce a child. It is well known that the Church distinguishes between the two aspects of sexual intercourse: the unitive between husband and wife, and the life giving which produces a child. These two aspects are to always be respected, but the former may be present without the latter, assuming a legitimate reason ascertained (hopefully) through serious prayer and competent spiritual direction.

So again the question remains: why is one method of birth prevention permitted and the other is not? To put the matter simply, the answer lies in the fact that one method is in accordance with nature (i.e. the natural law) while the other is not. One method requires communication and respect between partners, the other does not.  Preventing birth through natural means requires the couple to practice the virtue of temperance and restraint during the fertile periods, which requires the aforementioned communication and respect between the husband and wife. Preventing birth through unnatural means (i.e. the pill) requires no such virtue. In fact, evidence is mounting that birth control has lead to the practice of vice. A husband may look upon his wife as a sexual object who can satisfy his animal-like urges upon command. Restraint is not necessary. A young man may now have sex with a young lady and no longer fear the consequence of a child. The result is that sex is no longer sacred. It is free in the commercial sense of the word, and being free, it is cheap.

The preceding may be unconvincing to many, but, in my experience, most have not even begun to engage the arguments put forth by the Church. At any rate, the necessary distinctions are drawn and must be dealt with squarely, as the Catholic must squarely deal with the question first proposed. For a Christian – Catholic, Protestant or otherwise – the reasoning of the Catholic Church must be taken very seriously. Christians are a people of life, and as such we must be continually open to life. But if we find it necessary to delay the birth of a child, God has given us natural means to do so. What grounds do we have to reject these means in favor of other means that so easily lead to vice?

Chesterton’s second problem with birth-control is that it is a cowardly, dishonest, and ineffective form of Eugenics; and we must remember that birth control came out of the eugenics movement. His thoughts on this matter are worth quoting in full.

Second, I despise Birth-Control because it is a weak and wobbly and cowardly thing. It is not even a step along the muddy road they call Eugenics; it is a flat refusal to take the first and most obvious step along the road of Eugenics. Once grant that their philosophy is right, and their course of action is obvious; and they dare not take it; they dare not even declare it. If there is no authority in things which Christendom has called moral, because their origins were mystical, then they are clearly free to ignore all difference between animals and men; and treat men as we treat animals. They need not palter with the stale and timid compromise and convention called Birth-Control. Nobody applies it to the cat. The obvious course for Eugenics is to act toward babies as they act toward kittens. Let all the babies be born; and then let us drown those we do not like. I cannot see any objection to it; except the moral or mystical sort of objection that we advance against Birth-Prevention. And that would be real and even reasonable Eugenics; for we could then select the best, or at least the healthiest, and sacrifice what are called the unfit. By the weak compromise of Birth-Prevention, we are very probably sacrificing the fit and only producing the unfit. The births we prevent may be the births of the best and most beautiful children; those we allow, the weakest or worst. Indeed, it is probable; for the habit discourages the early parentage of young and vigorous people; and lets them put off the experience to later years, mostly from mercenary motives. Until I see a real pioneer and progressive leader coming out with a good, bold, scientific programme for drowning babies, I will not join the movement.

This brings us to Chesterton’s third problem with birth-control: those mercenary motives. The reasons for putting off children are usually selfish in nature: we want to have enough money to travel; we want our freedom to enjoy each other; we want to finish college, etc. It is with these reasons that Chesterton says his “contempt boils over into bad behaviour”.

What makes me want to walk over such people like doormats is that they use the word “free”. By every act of that sort they chain themselves to the most servile and mechanical system yet tolerated by men…

Now a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will added to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect. They can feel that any amusement he gives (which is often considerable) really comes from him and from them, and from nobody else. He has been born without the intervention of any master or lord. He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation. He is also a much more beautiful, wonderful, amusing and astonishing thing than any of the stale stories or jingling jazz tunes turned out by the machines. When men no longer feel that he is so, they have lost the appreciation of primary things, and therfore all sense of proportion about the world. People who prefer the mechanical pleasures, to such a miracle, are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the very dregs of life to the first fountains of life.

It is for these reasons, among others, that I, along with Chesterton, think the Catholic Church is wholly correct in her stance toward the modern notion of birth-control. Others are free to disagree, but one should not do so based on contemporary trends of public opinion. If you are following the sheep, you ought to discern who is your shepherd. And certainly one should not disagree and dissent for selfish motives. If one wishes to contend with the Church’s notion of the beauty of life and the sexual act, he or she should do so reasonably while engaging the arguments put forth by the Church.

Natural Morality

C. S. Lewis from The Problem of Pain (Harper Collins 2001):

The moralities accepted among men may differ – though not, at bottom, so widely as is often claimed – but they all agree in prescribing a behaviour which their adherents fail to practise. All men alike stand condemned, not by an alien code of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt.

Moral Confusion

Mary Eberstadt, speaking of the intellectual dishonesty that marks our contemporary discourse about sex, has this to say in the latest issue of First Things (February 2009):

For women, though, the fallout from the [sexual] revolution appears more immediate and acute. It is women who have abortions and get depressed about them, women who are usually left to raise children alone when a man leaves for someone younger, women who typically take the biggest financial hit in divorce, and women who fill the pages of such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Mirabella and liberationy websites like Salon with sexual doublespeak.

Just look at any one of those sources, or take in a segment of those women’s morning talk shows or a random ten minutes of Sex and the City. All reveal a wildly contradictory mix of chatter about how wonderful it is to be liberated by sex, on the one hand – and how impossible it has become to find a good, steady, committed boyfriend or husband on the other. It’s as if, say, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were to put out magazines that were half pitches for vegetarianism and half glossy pages of pork and beef and chicken simmering in sumptuous sauces. If something like that were to happen, people would notice the contradiction. But because of the will to disbelieve in some of the consequences of the sexual revolution, they don’t when the subject is sex.

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