Monday, March 5, 2012

The Thing That Gets Lost in the Soundbites

Pay attention, now, because I'm going to do two things that I hope will be extraordinarily uncommon, and I'm going to do them together: first, I'm going to give props to Newt Gingrich; second, I'm going to give a tip of the pipe to Donald McClarey. The latter gets the pipe tip for bringing up the thing that gets props for the former. Now before we go on, I want you to watch the following video, in its entirety.


Done? Great. Let's move on.

As much as I really loathe Newt, I will give him this one thing: If someone has defined the grounds for a discussion in a way that he deems spurious, he'll let you know and then re-frame the grounds to his liking. Sometimes, that's really little more than a substitution of one flavor of bullshit for another flavor of bullshit. In this case, it happens to be a re-orientation toward the reality of the debate. Many, many people have taken up pen and keyboard on this issue and explained it in a respectable and honest way. I simply reposted the Gingrich clip because it serves as a convenient and succinct summary. What I really want to talk about is why we as Catholics see this as a necessary fight.

I'm not talking about the abortion side of the issue. That, while present and absolutely worth fighting, is a subject that I have visited and re-visited enough that I would hope my position was clear. What we're going to do today is talk about why we're going to the mat over contraception - why, in other words, Catholics have a problem with it. It tends to get lost in the soundbites, partially because the people reporting on this stuff don't care what the argument is, and partially because even if they did, it's more nuanced than their 30-second-interval attention spans can handle.

There are a whole host of reasons to be against contraception. There's the fact that it can make it harder for a woman to conceive when she does come round to deciding to have kids; and let's not forget that mucking with hormones has a proclivity to invite cancer into the picture. What creates the real problem, though, is that contraception definitively cuts off the sex from its material and spiritual causes, and in doing so establishes a dehumanizing objectification - really, a culture of sexual slavery - that would make any honest feminist twitch with indignity.

But how can it be dehumanizing to give women control of their reproductive faculties? Isn't the ability to avoid pregnancy responsible for giving women expanded horizons and whole realms of self-fulfillment that would be unattainable to them were they saddled with children just for wanting to have sex? Doesn't taking childbirth away as a necessary possible consequence of sex allow women to avoid being objectified, as being treated as mere walking uteruses by the men in their lives?

These are the arguments that we very often hear in favor of the thesis that the Church is behind the times, or the bastion of a male-dominated, chauvenistic world view. And if the thesis were valid, then the arguments might carry more water. As it is, though, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a place with a more progressive view of women than the Catholic Church; and the idea that we want to relegate women into some gender-assigned caste of incubators is belied, amongst other things, by the fact that we hold in high esteem women who have in most cases chosen to never, ever have biological children. Which when you think about it, is an awfully weird thing for a bunch of manly woman-subjugators to do. Sorry to say for you self-styled progressives - so richly undeserving of the title - the Church just happens to require us to face and accept the truth.

So here is the truth: the Church teaches that artificial contraception is wrong because it cuts off women from part of their inherent nature, and in doing so, leads to both external and self-objectification around a sterile capacity for sexual stimulation. Whether there is a practical possibility for conception or not, it is a natural purpose and consequence of the sexual act; and the willingness to accept, if not the direct seeking, of that end is a source of great intimacy between a man and a woman. To go to someone knowing that your interaction may create a totally new and unique human life lends a certain undertone of gravity to even the most frivolous roll in the hay. And far from objectifying the woman by making it all about her as a baby factory, it acknowledges her unique position in nature as the sole person who can foster new life. Cut off that access to the life-giving force of sex, however, and you make it about two people seeking pleasure. Pleasure is good, but without that true self-giving that comes with the knowledge that a simple act of friction may result in a lifetime of shared responsibility and sacrifice, the energy of the act can only turn inward. The vessel of new life becomes a vessel of a most ephemeral pleasure; which to be recaptured demands the repetition of sex again and again in pursuit of that fleeting moment of ecstasy. It is a dead process, a series of rote, mechanical motions.

So that is what it's all about. This is not to say that people who use contraception are deliberately objectifying each other, or than any instance of sex that does not include the possibility of procreation is somehow wrong or unnatural. There are reams and reams of pages devoted to explaining that, and it exceeds my purpose here. All I sought was to lay out the fundamental point of moral teaching that demands that the government mandate regarding the funding of contraception be opposed and disobeyed.

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