The pastoral response to ubiquitous sexual sin

This being the Year of Mercy, let’s be pastoral, by which I mean think practically about how to help sinners.

I went to a Catholic elementary school, and although an inattentive and impious student, I did pick up the distinction between mortal and venial sins.  I understood that the former send you straight to hell if you don’t go to Confession before you die.  However, the benefit of this knowledge was vitiated by another impression I had–that mortal sins are very rare.  Somehow, my friends and I all got it into our heads that there are only a couple mortal sins:  murder and adultery, we thought, and we weren’t even sure about the second one.  The Catholic attitude toward the Last Things seemed strange to me.  On the one hand, we were told that the way to heaven is very narrow and difficult.  On the other hand, the list of mortal sins in our heads made it seem laughably easy.  I concluded that going straight to heaven is hard, but nearly everybody makes it to Purgatory.  It wasn’t until my late twenties that I accepted that I myself was in a state of mortal sin.

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Warrior babes: Must men lie even about what we find sexually attractive?

Many years back, I came across a show on the TV guide channel called something like “The top ten sexiest women in sci fi”, and I decided to watch it to gain some insight on early twenty-first century cultural…oh hell, you know why I was watching it.  Anyway, “science fiction” was defined broadly to include a bunch of science fiction, fantasy, and superhero TV shows.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, ogling women is a bad thing.  Do as I say, not as I did.)

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Is it possible for a human being to consent to anything?

Reading about some of the possible reasons for annulling a marriage makes me worry about whether it’s possible for two human beings to actually marry each other at all.  We have become bewitched with a model of perfectly free consent that can never exist in the real world.  Do not deception, coercion, and unsoundness of mind invalidate consent?  Yet we always make decisions with imperfect knowledge, imperfectly understood knowledge, or knowledge that might conceivably be false.  Our options often have negative consequences attached, so we can always say we are coerced.  I expect only death will fully cure me of immaturity.

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Fairy tales and the preparation for sexual awakening

One more, and then I’ll put the “princess” theme to rest for a while.

Watching fairy tale movies with the little kids for whom they are made gets one thinking.  They deal extensively with things beyond the experience of children:  falling in love, battles to the death, marriage.  Since I’m on a Disney kick, think of that beautiful scene in Sleeping Beauty where Prince Philip meets Princess Aurora in a forest.  We know from experience what draws men and women together, and we can read that understanding into portrayals of love at first sight.  How does a child understand it?

Foolish thought!  The opposite would be closer to the truth, that the fairy tales of my childhood made it possible for me to one day understand sexual attraction.

Man never experiences even his own biological urges unmediated by understanding and imagination.  I cannot imagine what hunger would be like to one who doesn’t know about food.  Take the intentionality away, and all that would be left would be some inexplicable discomfort.  By the time I reached the age of sexual maturity, my mind–and, more importantly, my imagination–had been made ready for it.  I had just enough knowledge about marriage and babies, and I had an aesthetic intuition from all those images of how masculinity and femininity are drawn together.  So the sexual urge came to me not as some new meaningless physiological trigger, but already humanized and mythologized.  I knew it as the yearning for intimacy with a woman and experienced it as such.  Without this preparation, the sex urge might be experienced as just some strange new sort of itch, which we can all agree would be monstrous and degrading.  This is not to say that having a properly mythologized sex drive will keep one out of trouble–through my own grievous fault, mine led me into plenty of sin–but it is the start of a sensibility that can see the logic and beauty of chastity.

What must it be like for the coming generation, so many without both biological parents, growing up in a culture that has abolished the sexual archetypes and “heteronormativity” in the name of equality?

What my body means, What I mean

This is the third part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Suppose it is true that there are natural meanings to our corporeal acts, independent of and prior to any additional meanings we choose to confer upon them.  To what degree am I accountable for the natural meaning of my acts?  To take a common example, let us admit that sexual intercourse has a natural meaning and purpose, that it is about procreation via family, binding generation to generation and husband to wife, and expressing a radical donation of self to one’s spouse.  Are men and women always obliged to mean all this whenever they engage in the conjugal act?  Must I mean what my body means?

One position would be that natural meanings have, of themselves, no moral import. This would salvage the liberal position, even after admitting natural significations. Most liberals would frown on a man deliberately promising lifelong fidelity to a woman without meaning it. On the other hand, they would insist that what the two parties understand by the conjugal act is the only morally relevant data. A man and a woman who wanted the incidental pleasures of sex without the commitment the act implies could just agree not to mean by intercourse what intercourse naturally means.

This position has the advantage of allowing all sorts of indulgences while attempting to maintain some moral standards.  As a way of relating to one’s body and its given “language” for expressing love and intimacy, though, this is very unsatisfactory.  It implies a practical Cartesianism. My ego or self is conceived as an entirely separate thing from my body, a thing that I am said to “own” the way I own my furniture. But my body is my interface with the world and my fellows; in separating myself from it, I separate myself from them. A lover doesn’t see me, doesn’t touch me, isn’t close to me; she only sees, feels, and embraces my body, an automaton I control but that is too separate from my “self” to be a true locus of intimacy. What’s more, the choice of whether or not to endorse natural meanings is one that we never approach in a contextual vacuum. The natural meanings are always given. They provide a context that conditions any other meanings we choose to affirm. If I have sex with a woman without marrying her, I am rejecting her as my wife and treating her as unworthy of that commitment. I can’t object that marriage was a proposition never brought up, and therefore never rejected. The act of intercourse itself brought it up by natural signification. At that point, the only choices are to consciously endorse the body’s promise or to repudiate it.  If you want to not marry a woman and not reject her, there is only one way: don’t sleep with her.

The most obvious alternative would be to acknowledge a duty to always consciously mean by an act whatever that act naturally means. This is closer to the natural law view. It would mean that, before I perform an action, I should consider the natural meaning, translate it into a series of propositions of the kind I can mentally affirm or deny, and then affirm them all while performing the action with a clear conscience. This view certainly respects the language of the body; in fact, it errors in being too conscientious. Must we really expect every young bride and groom to enumerate in a set of clear propositions the whole meaning of marital love, in all its depth and force and subtlety, before they are allowed to consummate their marriage? I have certainly never done such a thing, nor do I believe that any philosopher or saint has ever done it; I doubt the thing could be done at all.

One important problem is that natural acts and relations like marriage are only really understood from the inside by engaging in them and being mentally shaped by the experience:  “conatural knowledged”, as the Thomists call it.  No doubt the bride and groom must have some idea what marital love means, or they couldn’t meaningfully promise it, but their understanding of it is expected to grow as they live it.  Living marital love forms the mind and the imagination, so that one can more fully understand what it is that one initially promised.  To expect full understanding from the start would have things backwards.

More fundamentally, the second approach falls into the same rationalist error as the opposite, liberal, position.  It assumes that the only kind of meanings are the kind that can be reduced to finite sets of propositions.  This, however, is not true, as we know from the philosophical investigation of art.  A work of art is certainly meaningful, and may even have a “message”, but the meaning can never be completely captured by a verbal explanation; explanations of what the artwork “says” never really capture what it shows.  Natural meanings are another case of showing rather than saying.  They contain propositions, but they are not exhausted by them.  They are in a sense larger than our minds.  What’s more, the fact that something is expressed naturally rather than verbally/intellectually is itself significant.  If a couple were to read off to each other all of my statements about the meaning of sex, this would not be identical to actually performing the marital embrace.

Clarity: good vs evil

I’ve been on the fence about BGC & Proph’s claim that good and evil are getting more unambiguous with time, but this would seem to be a case of it:  a man cultivated and wise by any century’s standard defending the noblest truths about human nature and being confronted by a mob of what any other age would call “unimaginable depravity” but ours calls “tomorrow’s leaders”.

Show me your conscience; don’t tell me about it

Wrong:

Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to pay for their employees’ contraceptives because it goes against our consciences, and we should have religious freedom not to have to violate our consciences.

Right:

Contraception is evil.  It desecrates the marital bond, offends against chastity, and is a menace to public morals.  It is reprehensible to engage in contraceptive acts or to cooperate in them in any way.  This is a matter of natural law; it has nothing to do with religion.  Public bodies should not be promoting or enabling this sin.  Neither Holy Mother Church, nor any other group, religious or secular, nor any individual should be forced by government to divulge funds for such wicked purposes.

The first message, the wrong one, can be translated as follows:

We Catholics have this weird idea that contraception is bad.  We have no reason for this belief.  Don’t look at us, man; it’s the old man in Rome.  He made up this rule and the rest of us are stuck with it.  It’s like the Jews and pork–a ‘religion’ thing.  However, even though poor, poor women (Who cares about men, after all?) are going to, like die, or whatever it is that happens to chicks who don’t get their contraceptive pills, we are selfishly sticking with our arbitrary dislike, and we think we’ve found something in the constitution that forces you to let us.

If you say the second thing, people might think to themselves

Whoa.  They really believe this stuff.  I guess it would be wrong to force them to do something they think is that bad.  Maybe these laws are getting a little pushy.  And maybe it isn’t a ‘religion’ thing; maybe we’ve been running over peoples’ consciences for a long time, and it’s only now that the target was big enough to fight back.

So, what’s actually going to happen?  I think this comment at What’s Wrong with the World sounds most plausible:

I predict the following:
1. Most if not all the bishops will start out sounding strong in solidarity in trying to get this reversed.
2. Some catholic organizations (colleges, hospitals, clinics, etc) will refuse to go along with the bishops, will not follow their lead, and will give in to the demand to provide the insurance.
3. Some bishops (but not all) who have Catholic orgs in their diocese who give in (#2 above) will “enter into” dialogue with them, and this dialogue will become extraordinarily complex to sort out. Aug 2013 will pass without resolution of the dialogue. (Recall the complex discussions Cardinal Law had about a Catholic org entering into contracts with non-Catholic entities for shared space?)
4. Approximately 6 bishops who have orgs in #2 above will timely excommunicate members of the boards. Bruskewitz of Lincoln NE (if he has any boards so foolish as to tempt him) being first, followed quickly by Olmstead of Phoenix, Chaput of Philly, and Loverde of Arlington VA.
5. Several org boards will simply renounce their Catholic ties and become non-affiliated orgs. Then they will buy the insurance. (This has already happened by one group, so it doesn’t take much prescience.) They will hope to avoid excommunication this way.
6. A large number of theologians will announce that giving in to the regulations is not (a) formal cooperation with evil, and (b) is not immediate material cooperation with evil, and therefore is subject to the usual “cooperation with evil” rule, requiring proportionate good.

The practical problem the bishops (as a body) have with making any kind of effective political stand is the combination of 3, 5 and 6 above. The more they hold a hard line with solidarity, the more pressure some board members will feel to sever Catholic association, and use 6 to justify themselves – resulting in a noticeable number of rats leaving the ship, upsetting the ONE LARGE BLOCK UNITED IN OPPOSITION picture. If they were unified and pro-active they would pre-emptively formulate a strategy together to _all_ (a) give a 1-month hard deadline to all orgs trying to go with the HHS regulation for all “discussion”, and (b) publicly punish all orgs and their boards that EITHER sever ties over this or buy the insurance, and (c) formally silence theologian dissent on the issue. I don’t even know if these are readily possible within Canon Law.

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