"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Archbishop Burke: Contraception and Abortion

Archbishop Burke is making history today, and by his most recent appointment stands poised to influence the future direction of Catholicism in America. Here I wish to talk about something he said recently. But first let me explain.

There comes a time when to remain silent is to become complicit. In the face of evils so grievous, there is only one upright option; we must speak up, speak out and do everything in our power to resist them. Which evils? Things like this, and this, and this. How do we respond to such evils? We have to expose the falsehood of the underlying causes, and show to the world the way of life and truth. The underlying causes of these evils include fundamental philosophical and theological errors. One such error is the nominalism that denies that things have natures, or that we can know the natures of things. When nominalism is combined with empiricism, the result is a scientism by which an abortionist sees no ontological difference between an unborn human and an unborn dog. If a person loses sight of that ontological difference, he has lost sight of the basis for ethical differences between dogs and humans. Without recognizing that ontological difference, one cannot see the intrinsic value and intrinsic right to life of a human being. That leads to the mistaken notion that the unborn child is valuable only if he or she is wanted by his or her mother, and that the child has 'rights' only if human laws grant rights to the child.

Another fundamental philosophical error is John Locke's notion of personhood as self-consciousness, according to which there can be a human being without a human person, when self-consciousness seems to be lost or not yet manifest. This error allows people to think that when they are killing unborn human beings, they are not killing human persons, only potential persons. It allows people to think that in starving Terri Schiavo, no person was being starved, only a 'vegetable.' In actuality, wherever there is a human being, there is a human person, because a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, as Boethius explained long ago. A human being is not a person inhabiting a body, or a body occupied by a another being -- i.e. a person. Rather, a human being is a human person. Wherever there is a human being, that human being is a human person, whether or not he or she presently has or manifests self-consciousness.

Another fundamental philosophical error, is an error about sex. In an age in which sex education is so strongly emphasized, it is no small irony that our culture is deeply uninformed about the philosophy of sex. We have become experts in the technique of sex, but we have become ignorant of the telos of sex. We have become like little children who have not yet learned of the "birds and the bees," because we have forgotten what sex is for. Like children in sweatshops we know all the ways this product can be put together, but we have no idea what is its purpose. So, as children do when they do not know the purpose of a thing, by default it becomes a toy. But life and death, joy and laughter, trust and betrayal, love and abuse, flourishing and extinction, fulfillment and suffering lie in potency in this 'toy.' And that is why it is no toy at all.

And that sets up what I want to say about some recent comments by Archbishop Burke. Last month he delivered a talk in which he said the following:

A second context of my remarks is the essential relationship of the respect for human life and the respect for the integrity of marriage and the family. The attack on the innocent and defenseless life of the unborn has its origin in an erroneous view of human sexuality, which attempts to eliminate, by mechanical or chemical means, the essentially procreative nature of the conjugal act. The error maintains that the artificially altered conjugal act retains its integrity. The claim is that the act remains unitive, even though the procreative nature of the act has been radically violated. In fact, it is not unitive, for one or both of the partners withholds an essential part of the gift which is the essence of the conjugal union. The so-called "contraceptive mentality" is essentially anti-life. Many forms of so-called contraception are, in fact, abortifacient, that is, they destroy, at its beginning, a life which has already been conceived.

The manipulation of the conjugal act, as Pope Paul VI prophetically observed, has led to many forms of violence to marriage and family life (Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae, "On the Proper Regulation of the Propagation of Offspring," 25 July 1968, no. 17). Through the spread of the contraceptive mentality, especially among the young, human sexuality is no longer seen as the gift of God, which draws a man and a woman together, in a bond of lifelong and faithful love, crowned by the gift of new human life, but as a tool for personal gratification. Once sexual union is no longer seen to be, by its very nature, procreative, human sexuality is abused in ways that are profoundly harmful and even destructive of individuals and of society itself. One has only to think of the devastation which is daily wrought in our nation by the multi-million dollar industry of pornography. Essential to the advancement of the culture of life is the proclamation of the truth about the conjugal union, in its fullness, and the correction of the contraceptive thinking which fears life, which fears procreation.

Archbishop Burke reminds us of the prophetic words of Pope Paul VI regarding the social consequences of disconnecting sex from its intrinsic telos by accepting the use of contraceptives. Given that disconnect, warned Pope Paul VI, sexuality will come to be reconceived as a channel for self-gratification, as opposed to self-donation. But when self-gratification becomes the conceived end of sexuality, then anyone or anything obstructing the way to that self-gratification is conceived as an impediment to the fulfillment of one's sexuality. And Pope Paul VI was right. In the sex-as-self-gratification mindset, when an unborn child frustrates that self-gratification, the child must be destroyed [warning, obscene language at the link]. In this way, contraception is intrinsically linked to the violence of abortion.

Many Christians do not realize that prior to 1930, all Protestant denominations agreed with the Catholic Church and with all Christians since the first century, that contraception is sinful. The Anglicans at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 were the first Christians in the history of Christianity to deny the immorality of contraception. Pope Pius XI responded to the Lambeth decision by writing Casti connubii, in which he taught that whenever the marital act is "deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life, [this] is an offense against the law of God and of nature." (Casti connubii, 56) All Christians had always understood that it was wrong to treat our sexual organs or the sexual act as a toy to do with according to our pleasure. But soon after the Anglicans gave in, all other Protestant denominations went along. Now, even the most conservative Protestant denominations think nothing of contraception, and many Catholics do not follow the Church's teaching against the use of contraceptives.

But let's consider some uncomfortable questions. What if there is an intrinsic connection between the popular acceptance of contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion? And what if there is an intrinsic connection between the acceptance of contraception among Christians, and the popular acceptance of contraception? If so, then there is an intrinsic connection between the acceptance of contraception among Christians, and the legalization of abortion. In that case there is a deep contradiction between picketing in front of an abortion clinic, and using contraceptives or being in a Christian denomination that condemns abortion but condones the use of contraceptives.

Given this intrinsic causal relation between contraceptives and abortion, if Catholics and Protestants seek to stand united in opposition to abortion, we must stand united in opposition to the use of contraceptives and the contraceptive mentality. As important and worthwhile as protesting outside of abortion clinics is (especially in saving the lives of children whose mothers are persuaded by our presence not to abort their child), we are there confronting the deadly symptoms of the moral disease, not its fundamental cause. To stop abortion we must teach society the "birds and the bees" in its true sense. We must show the intrinsic evil of contracepted sex by showing the personal and teleological nature of sex in its God-given beauty and fullness. But this teaching cannot be only in words; it must first be in deeds. If Christians wish to stop abortion, we must throw out our prophylactics, and get off the pill. Protestants and Catholics cannot effectively teach the "birds and the bees" to society until we ourselves know and practice the virtue of chastity, i.e. true sexual excellence.

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