Posts Tagged 'Birth Control'

(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)

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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.

Chesterton on Divorce

Oh, now this is good stuff…

G.K. Chesterton from The Well and the Shallows (Ignatius, 2006)

As in that one matter of modesty, or the mere externals of sex, so in all the deeper matters of sex, the modern will has been amazingly weak and wavering. And I suppose it is because the Church has known from the first the weakness which we have all discovered at last, that about certain sexual matters She has been very decisive and dogmatic; as many good people have quite honestly thought, too decisive and dogmatic. Now a Catholic is a person who has plucked up courage to face the incredible and inconceivable idea that somebody else may be wiser than he is. And the most striking and outstanding illustration is to be found in the Catholic view of marriage as compared to the modern theory of divorce; not it must be noted, the very modern theory of divorce, which is the mere negation of marriage; but even more the slightly less modern and more moderate theory of divorce, which was generally accepted even when I was a boy. This is a very vital point or test of the question; for it explains the Church’s rejection of the moderate as well as the immoderate theory. It illustrates the very fact I am pointing out, that Divorce has already turned into something totally different from what it was intended, even by those who first proposed it. Already we must think ourselves back into a different world of thought, to understand how anybody ever thought it was compatible with Victorian virtue; and many very virtuous Victorians did. But they only tolerated this social solution as an exception; and many other modern social solutions they would not have tolerated at all. My own parents were not even orthodox Puritans or High Church people; they were Universalists more akin to Unitarians. But they would have regarded Birth-Prevention exactly as they would have regarded Infanticide. Yet about Divorce such liberal Protestants did hold an intermediate view, which was substantially this. They thought the normal necessity and duty of all married people was to remain faithful to their marriage; that this could be demanded of them, like common honesty or any other virtue. But they thought that in some very extreme and extraordinary cases a divorce was allowable. Now, putting aside our own mystical and sacramental doctrine, this was not, on the face of it, an unreasonable position. It certainly was not meant to be an anarchical position. But the Catholic Church, standing almost alone, declared that it would in fact lead to an anarchical position; and the Catholic Church was right.

The above discourse on divorce began with Chesterton lamenting the cowardly non-decision of the 1930 Lambeth Conference that lead to the moral justification of using birth-control; hence the reference above to “Birth-Prevention.” Chesterton preferred this term to the more common term “Birth Control”, because as he says “it [birth control] is in fact, of course, a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control.” Yep.

But I digress. Continuing the theme of divorce, Chesterton writes:

Any man with eyes in his head, whatever the ideas in his head, who looks at the world as it is to-day, must know that the whole social substance of marriage has changed… Some divorced persons, who can be married quite legally by a registrar, go on complaining bitterly that they cannot be married by a priest. They regard a church as a peculiarly suitable place in which to make and break the same vow at the same moment… Numbers of normal people are getting married, thinking already that they may be divorced. The instant that idea enters, the whole conception of the old Protestant compromise vanishes. The sincere and innocent Victorian would never have married a woman reflecting that he could divorce her. He would as soon have married a woman reflecting that he could murder her. These things were not supposd to be among the daydreams of the honeymoon. The psychological substance of the whole thing has altered; the marble has turned to ice; and the ice has melted with most amazing rapidity. The Church was right to refuse even the exception. The world has admitted the exception; and the exception has become the rule.


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