Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

The Postmodern Morality of the Roman Catholic Contraceptive Ethic

Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”

Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.

Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no?  It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.

On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

Pope Francis’ in-flight interview from Mexico to Rome

Captura de Tela 2015-05-02 às 14.13.34

Frank the Hippie Pope, thanks to Lutheran Satire

An exchange occurred with a friends of mine concerning the following commentary from a Roman Catholic article:

Most theologians today agree that the use of prophylactics to avoid pregnancy in cases of rape can be morally licit. Most subsume the case under the principle of double effect. Since the intention of the woman is not to render her sexual intercourse non-procreative, but to prevent the harmful effects of an unjust attack, the act, morally speaking, is not contraception, but self-defense.

An analogy might help to clarify this: A spear thrown by an aggressor is an extension of the aggressor’s attack. Foreseeing that one’s enemy might attack in this way, a solider would be perfectly justified in wearing a breastplate when going into battle as a prophylactic against the “finality” of the attacker’s attack, namely, the piercing of the solder’s heart. It is an act of proportionate (i.e., legitimate) self-defense against the aggressor.

So too, the migrating sperm in the birth canal of a rape victim is the extension of the rapist’s attack. Therefore, a woman foreseeing that an assailant might attack her in this way would be justified in protecting herself against the finality of the aggressor’s attack, namely, the fertilization of her ovum. She intends as an end the preservation of her health and as a means a proportionate (and so legitimate) act of self-defense. Since she never intends sexual intercourse, she cannot be intending to render her intercourse sterile. This case is fairly straightforward.

Pope Francis and Contraception: A Troubling Scenario

To these arguments I made he following comments and from which followed this exchange:

Me: You mean you can define the intention in such a way that it is so wholly disconnected from what objectively actually happens? So you can actually *not* intend to render a sexual intercourse non-procreative although that is precisely what is objectively happening by the act of taking contraceptives?

Okay, let me see if I can come up with an alternative explanation for contraceptives.

Let’s say we have a married couple. A woman does not intend to “render her sexual intercourse non-procreative,” she intends to enjoy some pleasure but she also intends to preserve her health from the harmful illness which attends pregnancy, say, morning sickness. Thus she intends as her ends the preservation of her health in taking contraceptives, but that intention isn’t the intention to “render her sexual intercourse non-procreative” even though this is exactly what is happening objectively.

Ta-da! Ergo contraceptives are justified in such a case as long as you intend by that act something perfectly legitimate, e.g. such as avoiding some illness. The morality of an act seems to be wholly derivative of what goes on in your head regardless of what you’re actually doing or what is actually happening. There, problem solved.

Friend: In your parody case, her intended means of avoiding morning sickness is the avoidance of pregnancy, and her intended means for that more proximate end is her taking the contraceptive since it renders her sexual act infertile. So, I don’t think that this one works.

As for the original case, the best way to make sense of it is not as this author has put it, but rather as involving the intention to prevent her assailant’s sperm from residing in her body (perhaps out of disgust for having remnants of an evil man in her). This intention clearly needn’t be contraceptive since we can imagine a rape victim with it who’d take measures to eliminate her assailant’s seminal residue in her body even if she were infertile or already pregnant.

Me: There is no wrong in intending to avoid pregnancy but only to intend a sexual intercourse to be non-procreative. Everyone who uses NFP does intend to avoid pregnancy after all and to avoid pregnancy is not a wrong in itself.

If there is no intrinsic wrong in intending to prevent a sperm from residing in one’s body, then there is no such wrong in my case either. Unless you invoke consequentialist calculations and exceptions to the rule as you seem to be doing here. If intentions can be divorced from its actual objective effect, then I can postulate any intention I like and I firmly maintain that in my parody case there is no such intent to contracept regardless of the actual effects of one’s actions.

Honestly what makes these explanations so desperate and absurd is that it is all in the narration. Principles are invented out of the thin air completely ad hoc and the wrongness or rightness of an act simply resides in how one *chooses* to describe the situation. So on one narrative, the act is alright, but with a little creativity one can simply reframe the narrative in another way to make it sound wrong.

This is unbelievably postmodern where the morality of an act is relative to narrative creativity. Let’s just honestly describe the situation. The nuns intend to prevent pregnancy and conception. They may be justified in doing so based on other circumstances, factors of whatever, but this game of narrative switching is deceptive, evasive and plain dishonest.

This is the more honest and consistent response to rape according to the contraception rule:

Friend“Everyone who uses NFP does intend to avoid pregnancy after all and to avoid pregnancy is not a wrong in itself.”

I don’t think that this is true. While many, if not most, people who practice NFP do intend to avoid pregnancy, there are ways in which NFP can be done without a contra-life intention. See that paper I linked to you by my friend for more on how this is possible.

I’m not invoking any consequentialistic calculations. Your case involves a contra-life will at some point in the woman’s deliberations, and we have evidence of this given that she would not take any contraceptives if she were infertile or already pregnant. By contrast, in the case that I have in mind, the woman is sickened by having remnants of her rapist still lingering in her body and would get rid of them even if she were infertile or already pregnant.

Me: Right, so it’s all in the head again. Even though the actual effect is that pregnancy is avoided, however as long as one describes the intention in such a way as to preclude avoiding pregnancy, then we’re all good.

Then I firmly maintain that in my parody case that there is no intent to avoid pregnancy despite that being the actual objective effect of using contraceptives. If the nuns can somehow use actual contraceptives without intending to avoid pregnancy or to render the sexual act non-procreative, so can my couple.

I think you’re confusing two distinct questions: (1) What makes the use of contraception moral or immoral, and (2) How to tell what is going on in a person’s head or what a person intends.

By your argument if a nun, like in my video case, fails to remove the sperm but wants to turn defiled seed into holy seed, then she is NOT sickened by the remnants of her rapists in her body? Or if being “sickened” by her rapist in her body somehow justifies the use of contraceptives, then that’s consequentialistic calculations again where some circumstance does justify the use of contraceptions, e.g. being sickened, etc. In fact, we could come up with a very strange principle that one’s use of contraceptives is only justified in the event that one does feel sick about it.

FriendThe view of intention that I’m defending is known as a purely first-personal account, and I would agree that one could conceivably use substances commonly known as contraceptives without actually engaging in contraception. (I don’t see what an “actual objective effect” is or how it is supposed to differ from other effects that these substances might have.)


I’m not confusing anything. What I think makes contraception wrong is that it involves intending the non-instantiation of the good of life (in this case, future life). I’m saying that in the nun case that I claim can be non-contraceptive (where her goal is to remove remnants of her assailant from her body out of disgust), the nun plausibly does not have a contraceptive intention (or at least *need* not have a contraceptive intention) and that evidence of this lies in the fact that her plan of action is not sensitive to her being fertile or infertile in the same way that the plan of action in your parody case is.

Me: Okay, if intentions are purely first person account, then it is purely subjective in every sense of the word. One can use contraceptives as long as one doesn’t narrate any intention to avoid pregnancy or whatever. Again, this is postmodern narrative relativity. Just as even if the actual effect of using contraceptives by the nun is the avoidance of pregnancy, as long as one doesn’t *account* or *narrate* it that way, we’re good.

So you have your way of narrating the nun’s actions such that she doesn’t possess a contraceptive intention and I have my way of narrating my couple such that they don’t possess a contraceptive intention despite the fact that both does actually use contraceptives.

And you are confusing the two issues you first speak of the nun *plausibly* not possessing a contraceptive intent and then you speak of the *evidence* of this, etc, etc. Thus, you first speak of intentionality, which is what makes something right and wrong, and then epistemology or what evidence you have that she doesn’t have such an intention. You are confusing the two issues.

Friend: I’m not confusing the issues. I’m using epsitemological considerations (e.g., sensitivity to counterfactuals) as evidence that she has or lacks a certain intention.

Can you describe in detail the envisioned plan of action for your hypothetical couple? If I were to ask them “what does taking these pills have to do with your end of avoiding morning sickness?”, what would they say?

That said, I’d be willing to grant that there are cases in which a married couple might look like they’re engaging in contraception to an outside observer but in which they really aren’t. For instance, a husband could be using a condom not with the goal of avoiding pregnancy, but rather to avoid the spread of a venereal disease. While questions would remain about whether there are any other moral reasons against that action, I wouldn’t call it contraceptive.

Obviously, I think that differences in intentions are qualitative differences and ones that are morally relevant at that.

Me: And I’m saying that it’s irrelevant to our argument. As long as your primary criteria for the rightness or wrongness of an action is purely in the head, and it’s simply a matter of organising or describing the external data to align with one’s favourite narrative and therefore that there is no qualitative distinction between the two cases.

The person can just reply that these pills are followed by no morning sickness and that’s that [NB: even though the Pope himself have said that intending to avoid pregnancy is not an absolute evil]. The details of how something works is irrelevant as long as it does work.

Obviously differences in intentions are morally relevant but the same external circumstance or actions are capable of being described with different intentions based on how one narrates it.

Friend: Okay, given how you’ve described it, I’d be willing to grant that in such a case there would be no contraception. That said, such a person either (i) is very ignorant about the effects of the substances she is consuming (since they prevent morning sickness by preventing pregnancy) or (ii) is not a rational agent (since if she did know how these substances prevented morning sickness (namely by preventing pregnancy), she’d have to be irrational in continuing to use them without intending the necessary means (which she knows of) by which her goal of avoiding morning sickness can be reached). Realistically speaking, most couples aren’t like this, though.

None of this would apply to the nun case that I’ve described because the substances she takes don’t rid her body of her assailant’s sperm (which is her goal) by preventing pregnancy (which, if anything, is a side-effect of her goal, not a causal means).

MeRight, then better to be ignorant or irrational and reap the benefits of contraceptives than to be denied them or use them immorally.

If we want to speak about realism then realistically speaking couples who do employ NFP *do* intend, in their heads, to avoid pregnancy even though it is very nit-pickingly difficult to prove it by their external actions which, as you pointed out, can be consistently narrated as not intending to avoid pregnancy. But if narratives is everything, then *anyone* can spin *anything* and get away with it.

So if we want to be “realistically speaking”, then in the nun case, let’s not kid ourselves, most of them *do* intend not to be pregnant with their rapist’s child. But if we want to be nit-picky, anyone can nit-pick and spin a narrative to account for anything.

Friend: I don’t doubt that most nuns do in fact intend to avoid pregnancy. My main point in bringing all of this up, though, was to show that the moral theology behind these difference in these cases isn’t inconsistent, which I think you’d now agree with (even if you think it is implausible).

Me: Sure, for any set of facts there exists multiple consistent systems given a sufficient level of abstraction. But that’s not very interesting and when it comes down to the crunch of making actual moral evaluations of actual cases, what we simply get is a highly postmodern form of moral relativism, relative to narrative creativity. Thus this system of moral theology attains consistency at the expense of objectivity.


My main beef with this line of argument is that it is a radically postmodern form of moral relativism where the morality of an act simply becomes relative to the narrative of one’s choosing. An act is moral and immoral by virtue of how you choose to describe the act. Thus nuns can literally take contraceptives, even with the intention of avoiding pregnancy, but it isn’t wrong as long as you don’t describe the intention as intending to render a sexual act non-procreative, even though it has that precise effect, as long as you can postulate some further or other intention or end to be achieved, even if that end is precisely achieved by so rendering that sexual act non-procreative.

Thus, using contraceptives is not immoral as long as you don’t call it contraception.

This is pure postmodernism to the point of utter nihilism.

To speculate a little, the problem with the contemporary Roman sexual ethic is that the tradition has condemned even the intention to avoid procreation. As St Augustine puts it:

You [Manicheans] make your auditors adulterers of their wives when they take care lest the women with whom they copulate conceive. They are unwilling to have children, on whose account alone marriages are made. How is it, then, that you are not those prohibiting marriage, as the apostle predicted of you so long ago [1 Tim. 4:1-4], when you try to take from marriage what marriage is? When this is taken away, husbands are shameful lovers, wives are harlots, bridal chambers are brothels, fathers-in-law are pimps.

-Against Faustus

Thus even the very willingness or taking care to avoid children is itself condemnable. However once the Roman Catholic Church concedes that the intention to avoid children is not itself an absolute evil, the entire logic is shot to hell and since then they have been inventing increasingly desperate, convoluted, but ultimately incoherent, explanations of why somehow contraceptives are bad but Natural Family Planning methods are not, etc.

That said, there is a very good Thomistic argument for contraceptives written by a Roman Catholic theologian here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on February 25, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
%d bloggers like this: