Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In the comments section of a friend's Facebook post concerning marriage and the Catholic Church I quoted some of what Gandhi had said in the 1930's and 40's about contraception.  I do not include any of that exchange or make references to the people involved simply because I have not asked their permission.  I take my argument outside the arena because Facebook is such a poor venue for carrying on a debate about serious subjects.  This explanation is for those who happen upon this post without the benefit of context.

First, this is what I quoted from Gandhi:

“Contraception is a dismal abyss, an insult to womanhood, inconsistent with her dignity.”

He said its widespread use would be “likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond and result in free love.” Contraception, ...Gandhi said, is “like putting a premium on vice, making man and woman reckless . . . it will be the undoing of man.”

On Human Sexuality, The Church, and Gandhi

The Church’s stand on certain issues relating to human sexuality is often mocked and ridiculed by the cynics who credit to her leadership nefarious motives at every opportunity.  Oscar Wilde said, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  I just hope consideration may be given to the possibility that the Church’s doctrines are not inspired by nefarious motives but rather are the outgrowth of a genuine love for the whole human family and an authentic desire to heal its ills?  That’s been her stated motivation in the 2000 years since her foundation in any case.  The claim that the Church may really know what ails us might possibly be true as well.  So might the remedy she prescribes.  After all, the illness consuming humanity has received the same diagnosis by those outside of the Catholic Church.  Humanity has been given a second opinion, as it were.  It was in this connection that I quoted Gandhi.

If Gandhi was wrong about the dangers of cheap and medically reliable contraception leading to the greater degradation of women, the further profanation of sex, and the continued debasement of humanity as we become more and more the slaves of our primal biological urges; then maybe Gandhi was wrong about war and passive resistance.  Or maybe, if he was only right about contraception for his time and for his culture he was only right about the evils of violence and war for his own time and culture, too.  Maybe wars—even wars of naked aggression—really ARE the answer, at least sometimes and for some people.   And who’s to say otherwise?  But on the other hand if Gandhi was right about non-violent resistance and civil disobedience than maybe he was also right about contraception and the proper attitude towards sex.  Because after all, both aspects of his philosophy are derived from the same source and if one is wrong the other’s likely wrong as well.

It’s also been asserted that in times past both the common man and his religious leaders could have sex with whichever women they wanted, regardless of consent, and without consequence.  But an attempt is made to correct for such injustices to the extent that marriage forces a man to assume the duties of responsible fatherhood.  After all, biological necessity has not bequeathed to men an obligation to the children that they cause to come into the world.  But women are faced by a biological necessity with either the responsibility of caring for their children or the responsibility for choosing not to.  Women cannot just walk away, even in our advanced day and age.  (As an aside, abortion is in fact not the abdication of all responsibility however much it may be presented that way.  It is in reality to take on a much graver responsibility than the care of any child in love would have possibly demanded.) 

I do not believe that the union of husband wife is of human institution, but from the merely human point of view marriage can be  seen as the consequence of a recognition that the right to one’s children comes with duties and obligations, the fulfillment of which society has a right to demand. 

And it has been helpfully pointed out that sex has value beyond its procreative function (or aspect).  Indeed that is the Church’s position as well.  But in saying that sex has a value beyond its procreative aspect it’s admitted that conception is nevertheless one of the aspects of sex with the unitive being the other.  Both aspects together form the “whole sex”. 

The story is told of three men each asked to wear a blindfold and put their hands against a certain object.  The first feels rough, cold, and hard.  The second feels soft, smooth, and flexible.  And the third feels short, thin, and hairy.  We know the object being felt is an elephant.  Each man, though, knows the elephant only in a single aspect, the first a knee, the second the trunk, and the third, the tail.  But the whole elephant is not just one of its aspects singly apart from all the others.  Nor is the elephant whole if it’s missing one of its aspects no matter how inconsequential.

And so sex—the WHOLE SEX—consists in ALL of its aspects together and not any one taken apart from the others.  Sex is about pleasure and the union between husband and wife and that union is, by nature, intended to be fruitful. SEE NOTE  If an obstacle is imposed, the intention of which is to block any of those aspects (female genital mutilation as practiced in some African countries being an example of an attempt to separate one aspect—pleasure—from the whole), then real violence has been done to the whole nature of sex. 

Neither is this just “what the Church teaches”, as I hoped to show by quoting Gandhi.  That sex contains multiple aspects, each of which being necessary for the fulfillment of the whole, may be arrived at by natural reason, by the analogy of hunger and the food appetite, for instance (which analogy I'll draw out in another place).

NOTE By “nature” I mean what something is in-and-of-itself.  For example, it’s the nature of an eagle to be a flying creature and an eagle is an eagle whether it actually flies or not.  That is to say that the part of the eagle’s nature which it is to fly need not be realized in act and, indeed, if the eagle has been born lame in one of its wings it cannot fly.  But it remains an eagle just as much as the eagle that does fly.  The lame eagle holds its ability to fly in potential.  So if what is roughly equivalent to “wings” in the sexual faculty of husband and wife has been lamed in one or the other spouses, the sexual act still holds its fruitfulness in potential.  And because there has been no deliberate attempt by either partner to frustrate that potential (or destroy it) the nature of the act remains just what it would be in the fullness of health and virility.

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