#MeToo shows the dangers of ‘end-less’ sex. ‘Humanae Vitae’ shows the way forward.
In our astonishing cultural moment, people—and not just those in gender studies departments—are engaged in serious conversations about sex and power. One interpretation of the #MeToo phenomenon is that sexual harassment is not about sex at all but only power. There is truth in this view. The power dynamics in film producer Harvey Weinstein’s room, for example, clearly made all the difference in determining how women responded to his unwanted advances.
Interestingly, the view that sexual harassment is not primarily about sex is put forward more often by women than by men. Male commentators, such as the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, often see things differently. In a conversation with Rebecca Traister of New York magazine, he paraphrases Tony Montana from “Scarface”: “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” As Mr. Douthat puts it, a certain kind of “male sexual brain understands power” to be “a means to sex.” And if the behavior of men like Mr. Weinstein is about sex as well as power—and it certainly seems to be—we will not get out of this mess without asking some hard questions about contemporary sexual desire.
We will not get out of this mess without asking some hard questions about contemporary sexual desire.
The ethical conversations sparked by the recent revelations, however, rarely get past debating whether or not the encounters were consensual. Yet mere consent is necessary but not sufficient because it is entirely too thin to support the weight of a sexual encounter.
The Problem With Consent
First, a reliance on consent overlooks the power dynamics that pressure women to consent to sex. Consent is not the magic bullet that prevents women from getting involved with abusive men. This is a truth many feminists have grasped, especially recently, as “sex-positive feminism” has come under fire. Sex positivity is defined by Allena Gabosch as “an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable.” But this seemingly neutral approach quickly becomes prescriptive.
As one young woman writes at the online magazine Everyday Feminism, “The sex-positive feminist circles I traveled in taught me that you should have sex whenever you feel the physical desire to do so, and if you don’t, it’s because of internalized societal pressures.” The concrete result is reverse pressure on women to engage in casual sexual encounters—in other words, to act just the way the Mr. Weinsteins of the world want them to.
Is consent really so powerful that it can make any kind of sex non-exploitative? Isn’t there such a thing as bad, consensual sex?
Further, the obsession with consent keeps all the focus on the people (especially the women) while conveniently ignoring the sex. Is consent really so powerful that it can make any kind of sex non-exploitative? What about women acting out male pornography fantasies, no matter how bizarre? Isn’t there such a thing as bad, consensual sex?
Directing Our Desire
The contemporary shape of bad sex is exemplified by pornography. Mr. Douthat argues that porn encourages “men to think about sex as something you do on a woman rather than something you do with a woman.” Such sex is innately self-referential and, to that degree, solitary—even if someone else is involved. Self-referential sex by its very nature means using another person for one’s own purposes. The fact that he or she might consent to being used does not make it any better.
Lest we get too smug about our own avoidance of such flagrant sins asinterviewing potential hires while naked or masturbating publicly, let’s keep in mind that these are just the extreme edge of the spectrum. One might simply yearn to sleep with someone, anyone, to affirm one’s own attractiveness. While much less toxic, such an attitude is still on the spectrum of making sex about oneself and one’s needs. It thereby reduces the other person to a tool to be used, even when that is not the explicit intent.
The contemporary shape of bad sex is exemplified by pornography.
How can we inoculate sex from this kind of exploitative use? We must first grasp that desire cannot direct itself. Our desire tends toward the infinite. This is not a problem if our desire is ordered properly—you cannot have too much God. But when desire is unmoored from good ends, then its insatiability creates a prison. Ask the sixth-grade girl trapped in a compulsive porn habit or the man who is addicted to dating apps.
Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, compares the insatiable man to an epileptic who cannot stop the spasms in his limbs. His desire is literally end-less. That is, it is not bent toward an end that naturally orders it. Self-referential sex is endless by its nature.
The reality of endless desire helps to explain the irrational compulsion in so much contemporary sex: The only natural limit to endless desire is fatigue. The spasm peters out. Or, as the book of Sirach puts it, “Hot passion that blazes like a fire will not be quenched until it burns itself out” (23:16). This sounds quite archaic until one realizes it anticipates tragedies like the addict who masturbates six hours a day. Why not seven? No reason, except perhaps simple exhaustion.
When desire is unmoored from good ends, then its insatiability creates a prison.
But that is the point: Desire unmoored from its true purposes is not and cannot be rationally ordered. It finds its own, arbitrary ends, which are justified after the fact through rationalization, that simulacrum of reason. I once heard a porn addict describing the progressive nature of his addiction. You go, he said, from wanting to look at run-of-the-mill sex scenes to discovering that you have fetishistic needs, like watching Scandinavian volleyball players in the shower. Of course, he did not begin viewing porn already having those “needs.” They were manufactured by the erratic disorder of the desire itself.
The True End of Sex
Desire cannot fathom what its true end is, but our minds can. Repression and capitulation are not our only options for managing desire. Reason can redirect desire to its true end by doing its own job, namely, discerning the truth.Let us ask, then, what the true end of sex could be.
As a first step, we have seen that we must avoid the cycle of using other people. For this to work, the end of sex cannot simply be internal to one partner and his or her needs. For example, sex is or should be pleasurable. But if a person enters into a sexual act with his or her own pleasure as the solitary goal, then the sex becomes self-referential rather than other-directed.
Repression and capitulation are not our only options for managing desire.
So let us bracket the subjectivity of the partners for a moment and focus on the objective nature of the act itself. Any biologist will tell us that sex is a necessary step for the reproduction of the species. Human beings, of course, are not like beetles or bison. But we are also not completely unlike them either. We are always animals, even while we are rational. Sex, through its procreative potential, connects us to realities larger than ourselves. The possibility of a child speaks of a future that might take us into completely unknown places.
This is an unappreciated source of the vulnerability of sex. For women especially, the possible costs of a one-night stand are considerable—and they have not disappeared with the availability of contraception, because of user- and method-failure.
The example of the one-night stand reminds us that, when sex connects one to the whole human race and to the future, it does so along with another person, namely, one’s partner. This is why the 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” spoke of the “inseparability” of procreation and spousal unity in sex. Having a child further bonds a couple, while the union of a couple fosters openness to children. Likewise, deliberately eliminating the procreative meaning diminishes the unitive, and vice versa.
Without an orientation to procreation, sex coasts into use.
Why? Because without an orientation to procreation, sex coasts into use. Contraceptionmakes sex structurally about my personal projects. An acceptance of the possibility of procreation gives sex an orientation toward an end that transcends the solitary person and opens it to true unity. On the other hand, a sexual act that has been deliberately sterilized has been turned toward purely subjective uses, and that means one’s partner has become a tool. Sexual utility is the enemy of sexual unity.
Of course, one could also deliberately eliminate the unitive meaning of sex and use one’s partner solely for procreation. In Love and Responsibility, the future St. John Paul II criticized precisely this kind of use. But the average person is hardly prone to desiring inordinately large families. Cultural phenomena like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale warn that the patriarchy lurks in procreation, but they seem blind to the more current oppression found in end-less desire. A pregnancy was surely the last thing men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer wanted from their affairs, and their disinclination to have kids with their victims was yet another symptom of their tendency to use women instead of loving them.
Sexual utility is the enemy of sexual unity.
Thus, when “Humanae Vitae” affirms that “it is necessary that each marital act remain ordained in itself [per se destinatus] to the procreating of human life,” it does so not in spite of marital love but because of it. Or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, using John Paul II’s language, the “objectively contradictory language” of contraception leads “to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality.”
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical does not deny the “just causes” that would make avoiding pregnancy a responsible choice for a couple. For such situations, spouses may abstain from sex during a woman’s fertile time (usually six to 10 days per month) rather than infect the sexual act with utility. In this way, “Humanae Vitae” was on to a very #MeToo insight: No sex is better than bad sex.
But doesn’t the periodic continence that the encyclical advocates (also known as “natural family planning”) merely give another, albeit non-artificial, way to contracept? Wouldn’t this be just another form of bad sex?Here again, focusing on the objectivity of the act rather than the subjectivity of the partners is clarifying. Subjectively, a couple may have “just causes” to avoid pregnancy. But objectively, how does the couple act upon that unselfish intention? If the partners choose an act that is structurally selfish—having sex while deliberately sterilizing it—they speak an “objectively contradictory language” with their bodies.
If, instead, they choose an act that is structurally unselfish—abstaining from sex—they speak an objectively loving language. This is why the encyclical clarifies that “each marital act” (not the intention) be “ordered to” procreation—even if, as during the infertile period, it is not likely to result in conception. Couples practicing natural family planning might engage in non-procreative sex but never anti-procreative sex. This orders sex and desire to an end that transcends the self, namely, to love and not to use.
The #MeToo movement reveals that we should not minimize the wounds inflicted by end-less sex.
Nature and the Body
Lest these insights seem stuck in another papacy, let us appreciate how the concern with avoiding utilitarianism harmonizes deeply with Pope Francis’ warning against technocracy, most famously in “Laudato Si’.” There the pope presents technocracy as “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation.” Francis expands upon the critique in “Humanae Vitae” of a utilitarian, technological mentality applied to the body: As we treat the body and its fertility, so we are inclined to treat the larger natural world.
Instead of hijacking them both for our own personal ends, the paradigm should be instead that of existing, as Francis says in “Laudato Si’,” “in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves.” This requires receptivity to “what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.” Just as the earth has a purpose prior to man’s manipulation of it for his own ends, so, too, does sex. For both, self-referential manipulation leads to exploitation, while receptivity to their natural ends leads to harmony.
Clearly, end-less desire appears in more arenas than the sexual—and is a problem older than the last six months. Nevertheless, the #MeToo movement reveals that we should not minimize the wounds inflicted by end-less sex, not only to the victims but also to the perpetrators, the consenters and the simply naïve. The 50 years since “Humanae Vitae”have seen a lot of woundedness. Maybe it is time to listen to it anew.
I'm a man who has had several female bosses over the years, and my I say that I would have been very happy to have been sexually propositioned by them. Never happened, and it's not for my lack of whatever attracts women to men.
Almost all sex that I have ever had has been solely self-gratifying, with occasional non-selfish sessions when my wife and I were trying for a baby and when my wife asks for sex with me when she feels that I want it and would sorry if I rejected her invitation. I can't speak for my wife, but she says that she enjoys sex when we engage in it, but she rarely has an urge for it. Thus, for the most part, it seems my wife has sex predominately as an unselfish act to satisfy my drive/physiological need for it.
I don't purport to have answers; it's complicated stuff. But I think that any discussion of the matter has to address the difference between sex drives between men and women and the source of those drives.
Angela Franks's position here has a fatal flaw: she sees consensual sexual activity and the sexual assaults that spurred the #MeToo movement as part of a single cultural continuity. It's tempting to see the excesses of modern culture and it's dehumanizing effects, particularly on the young, as the underlying cause of sexual harassment and rape, but powerful men committed sexual crimes millennia before the sexual revolution. The danger in this argument is to see the victims as participants in a generalized atmosphere of permissiveness and therefore indirectly responsible for being assaulted themselves ("What was she wearing at the time?"). Remember that lawyers defending priests accused of assaulting children made the argument that living in a sexually charged climate lessened their clients' responsibility, and some even openly suggested the children were the aggressors. Clearly sexual violence is an expression of power more than desire and the ancient power dynamic - with its sense of entitlement and superiority - is the real danger here.
Mr Graff, you're completely missing the point, and on two counts. First of all, Franks makes clear that today's dehumanized sex culture, and the pressure to which it subjects women, is itself an expression of male power; thus she argues not that the victims are complicit for incidents of sexual violence they suffer, but that instead they were victims before any incidents occurred. It's also worth noting, on this account, that in our formerly-Christian-sensitized society, the culture explicitly reproved and inhibited the sexual exploitation of women, however endemic it might be among other and older cultures. So even if your argument were not a complete non-sequitur from your initial statements, it would nonetheless be unsupported by those statements. I have long watched the claim that sexual violence was primarily about power, wondering if anyone would someday support it with anything more than specious than some kind of imaginary division between sex and sexual assault—as if "Fifty Shades of Grey" showed us nothing. I'm still waiting.
Naturally sterile couples though do not have endless sex even though they could hence the Church doesn’t warn them about endless sex. Work...w..o..r..k....and work stress....naturally keep sex limited in rhythm even where no children will result. Unemployed or people on a trust fund might be tempted to endless sex...but people with a j...o...b....no.
I would characterize the issue differently. The problem is not endless sex, per se, but obsession about endless sex. It's not healthy for an individual, and it's not healthy for the Church. I've been reading America for almost 30 years and I can't remember an article like this one, and I can't remember ever being concerned about the direction of the magazine, until now. This article smacks of a puritanical, repressive tone more fitting for outlets that proudly call themselves "conservative" or "traditional". I'm not expecting a Catholic publication to endorse free love, but I'd expect this magazine to have a more nuanced approach to human sexuality, or at the very least not waste ink on an article that will cause people to feel shame and guilt and open them to reproach and condemnation.
Unbelievable that in one sentence you condemn the unhealthiness of obsessing on sex, and then condemn Ms Franks's condemnation of that obsession. Recognizing the intrinsic spiritual richness of human sexuality, and exhorting fellow Catholics to follow the direction of the Church beautifully expressed in Humanae Vitae — this is not repression. Limiting sex to marriage is not "repression." Occasional abstinence from marital sex is not "repression." Bearing children is not "repression." "Nuanced approaches to human sexuality" which cut out the soul and heart of sex with hormones and lack of commitment - these are repression.
Insightful comment - not for the crass response from Mike Bayer, but for what it says about the Jesuit mission for this journal. Here, you have a reader for "almost 30 years" who thinks this is a departure from what he is used to in this journal. Unless Mike is clueless, he is saying he could safely read America (for decades!) without ever having to encounter solidly orthodox Catholic arguments.
There is an old evangelical quip/bumper sticker that says" "If Christianity were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?." Well, the writers of this magazine could ask the same about their Catholic witness here. That said, thank you so much for publishing this article. It is surely one of the most profound articles on human sexuality from a Catholic perspective I have read recently.
The problem with this article, and many others like it, is that it focuses on the negative things that can potentially occur with use of contraception, but ignores the negative things that an occur by not using it. Many, many couples can testify to the stress and anger and disruption that periodic abstinence as a way of controlling fertility brings to their marriages.
Fifty years ago Humana Vitae caused more division among Catholics than any other document since the end of Vatican Council II. It created "occasion of sin" that scandalized (theological meaning) the Mystical Body of Christ.
Since Our Lord revealed the true nature of human sexuality by elevating it to a Sacrament, it is clear that its end is not merely and only biological but primarily and always spiritual. Human sexuality as such is meant to express God among us ("Emmanuel"). If Our Father's will is that one sexual act may bring forth another human being, it will be so: Life is not for us to give or take.
Humana Vitae reduces our sexuality to the animal level, using a dated and stagnant definition of human Nature. Thus, returning to Pope Paul VI's message detracts from Our Lady's miraculous conceptions, both hers ("I am the Immaculate Conception") and from that of Her Son. The Father gives us the New Adam and the New Eve in a manner similar to the creation of Adam and Eve (Genesis account): sexuality played no role in either case. To insist that the end of sexuality is other than to love Love ("One commandment I give you...") is blasphemy, "Thou shall not take the Lord's name [LOVE] in vain." AMDG, Gonzalo T. Palacios, PhD, author of MARY, THE UNWED MOTHER OF GOD.
Good article. Indeed, it is primarily about power -- patriarchal power -- and only secondarily about sex. But within the Catholic ethos, religious patriarchy makes the situation even more confusing. As long as we perpetuate the conflation of patriarchal gender ideology and revealed truth, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Women priests and women bishops would do more for responsible parenthood and the New Evangelization than all the encyclicals that past, present, and future popes can produce. Humanae Vitae is RIGHT. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is WRONG. It is wrong to confuse the faithful into thinking that apostolic succession is contingent on masculinity. We need women priests and women bishops.
The general purpose of eating is to sustain life. That does not mean that every act of eating must be oriented towards sustaining life. So too, while sexual intercourse is generally directed towards procreation, it does not follow that every conjugal act has to be directed towards procreation.
Absolutely. This is why no one has ever clearly shown exactly why every single sexual act must be open to procreation, as Pope Paul proposed. They state it as a given, with no justification.
This is where Ms. Franks excellent distinction between non-procreative sex and anti-procreative sex is applicable. Certainly the pleasure in eating is a gift which enables its life sustenance purpose to be a delight. However, if I eat something dangerous to my health simply because the food is tasty than I'm acting irresponsibly. A person may love salty food but realizes its danger to his/her health and avoids such. By the way, couples involved in NFP report it's enriching and enchanting fruits on every level. I wonder what percentage of couples who have seriously approached responsible parenthood from the perspective of NFP ever says it in fact harms their relationship. My impression is that the method and attitude connected with it is not taken seriously by couples who object to NFP because they don't want to be told by any one but themselves to set restraints on their sexual relationship.
To eat and enjoy something that has no nutritional content (not positively dangerous, as you suggest) is not intrinsically evil. And even if I moderately consume a dangerous substance, just for the pure pleasure of it (alcohol, sugar), that does not mean my consumption thereof is sinful. What is evil is to persistently indulge in such eating so that the life-sustaining purpose of eating is violated. I submit that the morality of contracepted conjugal intercourse should should be similarly evaluated.
That's a great analogy...for masturbation. The complexity of sex, and the basis of the article, is the fact that it involves two people, as well as physiological purpose and pleasure. And no, consent of the partners is not the answer, if you read the article.
I have not argued that consent is the answer. I agree that it is not. And I have no idea how you tie what I have said to arguing for masturbation. The morality of the sexual act centers around whether or not I reduce myself and/or any other person to a mere object (precisely as the article argues). The point of contention is whether /every/ act of intercourse must be open to the possibility of life, instead of that the totality of the sexual relationship should be open to life.
The teaching is not rejected because it is difficult. It is rejected because it does not make sense. It is an intellectual crisis. Many Catholic philosophers and theologians would love to make logical or theological sense, but they can't.
It is also a true crisis for millions of lay Catholics. They are told they are sinning in ways that does not seem sinful to them. Some live on the margins of the Church and feel like second class citizens. Many just walk out of the Church.
All the while, Catholic officialdom and conservative lay Catholics insist that Rome has spoken and there is no room for disagreement. I fear that the haemorrhaging will continue for as long as the utterly sincere concerns of the "flock" are not taken seriously.
Very well put Derrick.
Hello Angela...This piece was just wonderfully insighful and timely. It resonates deeply with the experince of my life and marriage. I am so struck by the manner in which the current cultural "dialogue" on matters sexual is so impoverished and stilted by ideological presuppositions, philosophical and theological (unacknowledged) that it can't get out of its own way. You have shown thema very deep and beautiful way out. Thanks for taking the time and care to offer it. Peace...
I am personally aware of many long married, incredibly loving couples who, with thoughtful consideration and openness to life, welcomed as many children into their life as they felt they could responsibly raise. In some cases that was several, in other cases only a couple, or in some even one. Having done so they then opted for some form of artificial contraception (condom, diaphragm, vasectomy, or, pill) allowing them to then enjoy the intimacy, physical bonding, and physical as well as emotional release that sex provides to help them deal with the stresses and challenges of raising those children. Those who assert the prophetic wisdom of Pope Paul VI and HV completely deny the alternative prophetic wisdom of those who counseled against it. That being that those millions and millions of couples who were cooperatively, responsively, and responsibly planning and raising their families, now felt that they were undeservedly assaulted and castigated as selfish, grave sinners with one foot in hell. As a result, these multitudes of good, caring, loving people would simply no longer look to the Church for legitimate guidance. It is my opinion that nothing in the way of Church doctrine over the last 50 years has more undermined lay faith in the Church, or the moral authority of its hierarchy, than the unwarranted intrusion of the Church into the sanctuary of the bedroom.
Mike, how can one gainsay the prophetic insight regarding the negative effects of barrier and chemical methods of contraception foreseen by Paul VI.? Here are a few sections from paragraph 17 of the encyclical. How can one not see their pin point accuracy regarding marital infidelity and the objectification of women so ubiquitous today?
Here is the text of paragraph 17 .
" 17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection."
It’s overly simplistic to blame those societal ills on contraception. Correlation is not the same as causation. Furthermore, there are many, many wives who feel used as an instrument when sex has to be for procreation. And they are tired of being in a three way with their husbands and a thermometer.
You're right thomas about correlation and causation, of course. Still, if a group of drunk teens are at a home where the parents are out and there's booze all around, it's somewhat disingenuous to say the absence of the parents and the presence of the booze are simply a correlation and not a cause of the teens drunkenness.
Both men and women can be "used" for "making" a baby. That's wrong and those who engage sexually simply for that purpose, even if they use NFP to pinpoint the time of ovulation, are separating the unitive from the pro-creative purpose of sex and abusing its God given meaning.
Sorry Rhett, but I'd say that that paragraph from "Humanae Vitae" is both insulting and shows a complete ignorance of a large chunk of human experience. I'm not denying the reality of human weakness, but the simple fact is that many, many married people refrain from having extramarital affairs because they love their spouse and don't want to do anything to hurt her/him, nor do they want to do anything to put their marriage at risk. Likewise, spouses show respect and consideration for each other simply out of their love for each other, and if they don't, they have a problem in their relationship that needs attention. If they don't genuinely respect or care about each other, you're not going to make them do so by banning contraception. You just might ensure that they bring a child into the world under circumstances that are likely to be very damaging for that child. Let me emphasise, I recognize that Natural Family Planning CAN bring a lot of benefits to some people's marriages. The point is that the Church insists that it is the ONLY method of avoiding conception that is morally acceptable, yet the basis for it seems way of our touch with reality. It's not that its demands are too hard - building a Christ-centred marriage and family life is never going to be easy - it's just that, in many cases, it can cause needless hardship and unhappiness, while certainly not fostering the values of the gospel!
A very lovely and astute response, Cathy. But I don't see why you consider the passage insulting. Artificial contraception and NFP are somewhat similar to the difference between ending a person's life deliberately and not prolonging a life unnecessarily. We recognize that there are domains that belong exclusively to God. And that's a major problem of American society, i.e. an individualism that insists that I alone determine what's right or wrong.
Rhett, Cathy amplifies my point well. Many, many people did indeed experience that paragraph as insulting and demeaning. That is why HV has neither been accepted nor put into practice by the vast majority of Catholics. It is also why many thoughtful priests, bishops, and theologians, perhaps not vociferously but at least tacitly, send the message to their congregations that compliance with the teaching was more appropriately reserved to one's own individual discernment and conscience. The paragraph you cite begins by talking about "responsible" men and quickly devolves into a denigration of those supposedly responsible men by insisting that the availability of artificial birth control will necessarily lead to a vast new plague of infidelity, as if infidelity did not exist before the pill! As Cathy rightly points out, marital infidelity is not a result of the availability of artificial birth control, it is the result of much deeper challenges within the relationship itself. The language you cite, far from being prescient in any deep and compelling way, rather forcefully highlights the folly of a committed celibate individual wading into the milieu of the matrimonial relationship, an area within which he has no practical or experiential expertise. Hence, the teaching's falling on deaf ears, the erosion of the papacy's moral authority, and the flight of many responsible, loving, committed couples from the pews.
Mike, you stress what many stress, i.e. that HV "forcefully highlights the folly of a committed celibate individual wading into the milieu of the matrimonial relationship" and dismiss it on that prejudicial basis. Jesus was a committed celibate who has rooted marriage in its sacramental holiness. Nonetheless I think Ms. Franks analysis and insights are of particular relevance. As her email notes "theologianmom".,
Firstly, Rhett, thank you for your kind words about my response. I also accept that there is a difference between artificial contraception and NFP - that the latter is not a form of contraception - but I don't agree with the analogy that it's like deliberately ending a life versus not unnecessarily prolonging a life. And while it's true that modern society has gone overboard on this matter of being in charge of one's own life, I think that God does, in fact, give us some leeway to make our own judgements about matters such as when to have children, and how large a family we have. I suppose that you and I will have to agree to disagree!
Great article, thank you. You explained why contraceptive sex is "using" the other in a way that was new to me, and much clearer than other explanations I've heard. But regarding the sentence "We are always animals, even while we are rational" - it's illogical to include the very thing that distinguishes us from the animals in this descriptive and definitive statement. In other words, "We are always animals" might instead read "We are always created beings with a capacity and necessity to procreate to continue the species, much like animals, yet we are always distinguished from animals by our reason." We are NOT animals. We are human.
Angela - In the many years of my reading of and about HV and JP II's Theology of the Body, this article stands out for several unique insights that further elucidate the depth and wisdom of the Catholic response to what I call, for short-hand, the sexual revolution. Some comments.
The relationships between 1) freedom and responsibility, 2) choice and consent and 3) desires and needs are really mixed up in our modern world. So many are seduced (like the sex-positive feminists you mention) into believing that freedom is the right (or even duty) to follow one's desires, when, as you point out, it is often the opposite - "when desire is unmoored from good ends, then its insatiability creates a prison". Desires are never ends in themselves, but must always be subjected to moral evaluation (as you say, they are "end-less" without this evaluation). Temptation is but a desire that we perceive to be against the greater good. Seduction is where one's conscience is tricked (or partially tricked) into thinking a wrongful desire is actually good or better.
Choice is just the beginning of the moral process, not the end (as the pro-choice abortionists think), and is only good if one chooses correctly ("So choose life in order that you may live" Deut 30). Similarly, consent is only good if it is in keeping with the good. The term "consensual sex" is so often abused to suggest that the activity is now free of moral evaluation, just because two or more consent, provided they are above a particular age. It is used today to excuse many actions that are contrary to God's law. As you say, consent is "necessary but not sufficient." It cannot rightly be given until the end is first judged morally good. BDSM (as in the popular "Fifty Shades" series) and prostitution and pornography reveal to most the flaws in "consensual" sex. The whole basis for the LGBTQ ideology is to elevate desire, as they are subjectively experienced, over nature and it is considered intolerable or homophobic to evaluate the ends of those desires for their moral ends. But, the confusion of desire with right infects most sexual relationships, including married ones. The modern world is more concerned about misusing nature and the environment, than misusing their bodies and other people for satisfaction. Imagine the futility of being concerned for the global environment, when one is misusing those most close to us. We spoil the only environment we have full control of, while, like Pharisees, we condemn others for doing less and far away.
Your reflections on the relationship of the unitive and the procreative in human sexuality is also very helpful to me and further emphasizes the amazingly prophetic strength of Humanae Vitae. Marriage is the only sacrament directed primarily to another person, to form a communion of a man and a woman, for the natural goal of cooperating with the creator in the creation of a new human being. Unselfish love is hard for anyone, but marriage and children are the ideal school for it. Thank you also for distinguishing the difference between non-procreative and anti-procreative sex. A very useful way to think about it.
I think that Humanae Vitae is playing a role in history akin to the Nicene creed. The latter addressed a misunderstanding of the nature of God, and the former a misunderstanding of the nature of humanity. Arianism was very popular with elite opinion, and even appeared to have the historical edge, despite a clear rejection from the first ecumenical council. Arianism persisted in political power for at least a century, before eventually dying out. Even a pope wobbled on it (Liberius), yet the Holy Spirit preserved the true teaching. It would have been the end of Christianity if it has succeeded, as we would have lost forever the understanding of the Incarnation, and the intimate relationship of man with God. HV similarly has put a line in the sand against a misreading of the nature of humanity. Notice that all the bodily controversies of our time - the clamoring for women priests, for approval of masturbation, contraception and abortion, divorce, for sexual experimentation, transgenderism, in vitro fertilization, child sex abuse crisis, within and without the Church, the HIV and venereal disease epidemics., etc. - all are essentially gnostic separations of the spirit from the body. Despite all our pre-occupations with sex, we do not take the body seriously, with its in-built complementarity and natural end, written into every cell in the body, into our origins and destiny, the Savior who came as a male and told us to call God Father, and Theotokos, Mary, who Wordsworth called "tainted nature's solitary boast" - the only created being who is royalty in heaven.
I have never understood how the Roman Catholic Church can allow a couple who are definitely unable to procreate to participate in the Sacrament of Matrimony, if procreation is the "end" of marriage. Those who have "no possiblity of a child" should not, by this logic, be permitted to marry. Women who have undergone menopause, men who are impotent for medical or psychological reasons, those who have undergone surgical procedures that render them sterile for valid medical reasons (e.g. testicular or ovarian cancer), on and on the cases go. If someone truly understands how the church permits marriage under such circumstances, please explain. And once those circumstances pertain in a marriage which may have already produced offspring, should the couple ever afterward refrain from sexual relations? After all, they can no longer have children. I am asking very sincerely. I have never understood this.
Jeanne, The marriage covenant is a commitment a man and a woman make to a unique bond with each other which includes openness to the possibility of children or at least to not deliberately exclude the possibility of children. If circumstances prevent the couple from having a child this does not destroy the intention of this covenant. One thinks of the aged couple Zachary and Elizabeth whom God favored with a child, John the Baptist, in their old age.