Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Clearing up Catholic controversies

I have a dear friend with whom I have some rather strong, though never mean-spirited, disputes. Quite understandably, he finds my idealism to be very frustrating, and also feels, fairly, that the reasoning which I undertake from my ivory tower is not always taken with full consideration for those who are too busy leading hectic and difficult lives to ponder and pontificate endlessly about how the world ought to work. Specifically, this came up in relation to the Pope Benedict's statements about AIDS and the larger subject of birth control.

I may risk seeming partial if I quickly jump to the defense of my pope. Nonetheless, while I can understand why people believe that his statements were controversial and even dangerous, I think there was merit in what he said. The idea that condoms are helpful in the fight against AIDS appears to be self-evident. But, as my friend would point out, we have to be careful about applying a purely theoretical situation without taking into consideration its implementation. This is something condom proponents are careful to do when discussing the shortcomings of abstinence--namely, that it is not always practiced--but which they fail to do when addressing the similar drawbacks to the condom approach. Condoms have such-and-such a failure rate if used correctly; but this does not mean that they will always be used thus. Nor is it true that sexual behavior will remain static if condoms become more prevalent. It is distinctly possible that condoms will actually cause people to engage in more risky behavior. But this isn't correct, no matter how much some may wish it were so. As Rory Leishman makes clear:

Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, is one of the leading authorities on AIDS. In an illuminating article in First Things, he wrote, “Consider this fact: In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year — which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs or any other intervention or behaviour.”

This said, it deserves pointing out that the pope would, as all Catholics should, still oppose the utilization of all forms of birth control even if it were somehow demonstrated that condoms actually do reduce the rate of HIV. This can be a difficult thing to accept, but this is merely to say that the end does not always justify the means. Roman Catholics could never accept, for instance, compulsory abortions for unborn children likely to be born in poverty. The right to life is inviolable. In the same way, because condoms violate the natural law, it can never be acceptable to use them, even if the intent is to reduce the spread of AIDS.

I can go into details later if there is interest, but for now I'll let catholic.com summarize:

Contraception is wrong because it’s a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race, often referred to as "natural law." The natural law purpose of sex is procreation. The pleasure that sexual intercourse provides is an additional blessing from God, intended to offer the possibility of new life while strengthening the bond of intimacy, respect, and love between husband and wife. The loving environment this bond creates is the perfect setting for nurturing children.

But sexual pleasure within marriage becomes unnatural, and even harmful to the spouses, when it is used in a way that deliberately excludes the basic purpose of sex, which is procreation. God’s gift of the sex act, along with its pleasure and intimacy, must not be abused by deliberately frustrating its natural end—procreation.

Now there is a way around this which the Church has termed Natural Family Planning (NFP). They could have done better with the name, as it implies that planning the size of one's family is acceptable so long as one doesn't use a condom to do so. This is a misinterpretation of NFP, if an understandable one because of the name; but also because too often members of the Church teach NFP in a way that implies that abstaining from sex during periods of fertility so that a married couple doesn't have kids is fully in accordance with Church teaching. Again from catholic.com:

Married or engaged couples often are taught the legitimacy and the techniques of NFP with little or no mention of that other part of the Church’s teaching that insists that couples need "just reasons" (Humanae Vitae 16; Catechism of the Catholic Church 2368) for using NFP if they wish to be free from blame before God. (Indeed, I think we need now from the magisterium some less vague and more specific guidelines as to what actually constitutes a "just reason.")

Often such couples hear nothing of the fact that "Sacred Scripture and the Church’s teaching see in large families a sign of God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity" (CCC 2373). Still less frequently are they informed that, according to the magisterium, frivolous or materialistic considerations are in themselves inadequate criteria for deciding when NFP can be justified (cf.
Gaudium et Spes 50).

It is commonly asserted that parents cannot always afford to raise large families. To an extent this is true; I will look down from my tower long enough to empathize with the poor. But it is also true that we as a country are very wealthy, and that many of us can raise more children than we believe we could. One should add, too, that for Catholics, Matrimony is a sacrament, bringing with it untold graces from which the bride and groom may draw for support as they raise their children.

Best of all, perhaps, are examples of good strong Catholic families. The pope can't raise one of his own, naturally, though he may be a good shepherd to his flock. But if married Catholics produced large and loving families, I can't help but think that the world would look harder and more sincerely at her prohibition on birth control. In any event, they can hardly look on us more wildly than they do, and as Christ told us they would.

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