Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Homosexual: PART THREE (Natural Law and the Perverted Faculty)

This is by far the most difficult of the posts to write because it comes with so many automatic objections. At any rate, what I'm going to try to do is lay out the main arguments here and answer the obvious objections in later posts. Again, please see PART ONE and PART TWO first before moving on to this part.


I have always been fascinated with how people use the word "perverted." In fact, I would love if someone were to trace the history of the word. At least through the English-speaking world anyway. What's interesting about it to me is that it seems to be a sort of threshold concept. That is, when even the most liberal people come across some thing that really shocks them, they will use the word "perverted." Or some modern variation of the concept: "that's ****ed up," for example. And, of course, what counts as perverted changes with time. Masturbation, for example, was pretty commonly seen as perverted for some time. In fact, for a lot of people, it still is. For the more libertine and progressive person, though, this is absurd. "Masturbation is natural!" they'll ignorantly proclaim. Things like incest and bestiality aren't quite there yet, but incest, I estimate, is getting there.

Because it does change over time, people make the assumption that the term "perverted" doesn't really refer to any objective thing. This ties in to what I said in the last post about emotivism. People, at least the more liberal ones, take the position that terms like "perverted" are similar to "good" and "bad." They merely represent an individual's preferences on the subject. But as I noted in parts one and two of this series, this is not the case for traditional morality. Traditional morality is based, as I noted, on the premise that things have real essences. That there is such thing as a triangle, and thus, triangularity, that there is such thing as a eye, and thus, the essence of eyeness. As I noted in part two of the series, the essences of living things are unique. Or, that the final causes of particular body parts or body functions are to be determined in reference to the organism to which the body part is a part of. In other words, an eye has as its final cause sight (and various other things) because sight (and those various other functions) are necessary to the flourishing of the animal---are necessary for the animal to have the essence of a living thing.

I have not talked much in the other two parts about sexual organs or sexuality, though. I avoided it because it's the more controversial of the issues as it applies to morality. People can agree, for example that an eye is "for" seeing, at least generally. But they are way less comfortable saying a penis is for reproduction. I think they are unwilling to do this for a couple reasons. One, because they reject essentialism wholesale (without ever spending time with it), and two, because they don't want to even consider the fact that the thing they enjoy more than anything else in the world might be wrong. It's easy to get behind the idea that it's wrong to pluck out your eyes, but it's much harder to get behind the idea that it's wrong to use your penis sexually in a way that does not end in the ejaculation of semen into the vagina. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

The Perverted Faculty Argument

The perverted faculty argument is based on the fundamentals of essentialism: that things have essences, that the closer a thing approximates itself to its essence, the "better" example that thing is, the more "real" that thing is. As noted, this is an objective sense. A lion that can catch prey, protect itself, run, move, etc. is an objectively good example of a lion, while one that has three legs or is blind in its left eye is an objectively bad example of a lion. Morality, as I noted, is merely a special case that applies to rational agents. Insofar as the rational agent chooses to approximate itself closer to its essence, closer to goodness, the agent is moral. The perverted faculty argument is merely an extension of this. It says that because essence is defined, especially in living things, by final cause, to frustrate or to act contrary to that final cause would necessarily be immoral because it would pull the thing away from its essence. In the case of eyes, it would be bad and consequently immoral to cut them so as to destroy sight. Sexual organs have specific final causes that are unlike eyes. The final cause of the penis, for example, is ejaculation into the vagina. This is the direction to which a penis, by its essence, is aimed for the flourishing of the human being. As such, it would count as immoral to use a penis in such as a way as to act contrary to its final cause; namely, it would be immoral to ejaculate into something that isn't a vagina. To do so would be to willfully choose an end that is not a good (in the metaphysically objective sense) end. It would be to choose bad.

If this is correct, that acting contrary to a thing's end is immoral, then it would rule out the things that have been considered sexually suspect for centuries (at least in the Western world): masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, sodomy, bestiality, etc. These things are positive frustrations of the final cause of sexuality: procreation. This is all that is meant by "perversion," and you can still see this meaning carried in how people use it in everyday terms. That is, a person perverts the natural end of an organ when he uses it contrary to its natural end. So, a person who has sex with animals is perverting his sexual organ's natural end, as his sexual organ's natural end is ejaculation into a human vagina, not into an animal. This is why people say "that's perverted!" or "he's a pervert!" Feser notes a wonderful quote from Freud on the topic. I don't repeat it here to justify the position (I know people hate Freud, and he wasn't exactly a natural law philosopher). I cite it just to buttress my argument that this is how the language has developed:
[I]t is a characteristic common to all the perversions that in them reproduction as an aim is put aside. This is actually the criterion by which we judge whether a sexual activity is perverse - if it departs from reproduction in its aims and pursues the attainment of gratification independently.
This is also what people mean when they say homosexuality is "unnatural." They are saying homosexual activities run contrary to the final cause of the sexual organs and sexuality in general. The same goes for masturbation. This is why the argument that masturbation is "natural" is completely faulty. "Natural" in the natural law sense is concerned with metaphysics. An eye by its nature (or essence) is aimed at sight for the flourishing of the animal. Even if every person were to be blinded tomorrow (by disease or whatever), it would still be the essence of the eye to see. Similarly, even if there are people or animals who are born blind, it would not make eyes, by their nature, things that do not see. In other words, "natural" in this sense does not mean "occurring in nature" or anything of the sort. Natural law does not say that something is good because it occurs in nature. Natural law says that something is good insofar as it is close to its nature or essence. While it absolutely is correct to say that masturbation or homosexuality occur in nature, it is positively incorrect to say that they are "natural" in the metaphysical sense. As such, when a philosopher or even the layman brings the charge against the homosexual that what he does is "unnatural" and the homosexual points to gay panda bears, he blindly misses the point.

The Two Aspects of Life

But isn't this different than an eye or a heart? I mean, to use our heart contrary to its end (pumping blood toward our survival) would be to kill ourselves. But when we use our sexual organs in perverted ways, like masturbation, we're not going to die. There are plenty of gay people that can attest to this. And something like HIV is the exception to this general rule. It's not like every person who masturbates or who has gay sex dies from it. You can "flourish" and still have gay sex, right? It's not like you're cutting up your eyes or drinking poison! So what gives. As I said, the final cause, or the essence of a body part is always determined in reference to what the body part is aimed. But the sexual organs are unique; they aren't concerned at all with survival; the are aimed at, instead, reproduction. There are two main aspects to the essence of life: survival and reproduction. Most body parts and body functions (at least for mammals) are concerned with the former, while only a few are concerned with the latter. A person might have sex every day, while another might be completely celibate. What they're doing has nothing to do with the survival aspect of the essence of life, even though it does have something to do with the reproductive aspect.

As such, even though it is correct to say that the sexual organs are aimed at the exchange of fluids, it is even more correct to say that the exchange of fluids is aimed at the creation of life. In other words, to act contrary to our sexual ends would be to act in a way that is metaphysically contrary to the creation of life, what the sexual organs ultimately aim at. This is exactly what Thomas meant when he wrote:
Now it is good for everything to gain its end, and evil for it to be diverted from its due end. But as in the whole so also in the parts, our study should be that every part of man and every act of his may attain its due end. Now though the semen is superfluous for the preservation of the individual, yet it is necessary to him for the propagation of the species: while other excretions, such as excrement, urine, sweat, and the like, are needful for no further purpose: hence the only good that comes to man of them is by their removal from the body. But that is not the object in the emission of the semen, but rather the profit of generation, to which the union of the sexes is directed. But in vain would be the generation of man unless due nurture followed, without which the offspring generated could not endure. The emission of the semen then ought to be so directed as that both the proper generation may ensue and the education of the offspring be secured. 
Hence it is clear that every emission of the semen is contrary to the good of man, which takes place in a way whereby generation is impossible; and if this is done on purpose, it must be a sin. I mean a way in which generation is impossible in itself as is the case in every emission of the semen without the natural union of male and female: wherefore such sins are called ‘sins against nature.’ But if it is by accident that generation cannot follow from the emission of the semen, the act is not against nature on that account, nor is it sinful; the case of the woman being barren would be a case in point.
As I've said, it's a question of metaphysically impossible. This means something that is impossible by the nature of the thing it is. So, an anus, metaphysically, is not aimed at the creation of life. As such, it would be immoral to ejaculate into an anus. The same goes for a hand. Or a sock. Or a condom. A vagina, on the other hand, is absolutely aimed at the creation of life by its very nature. Even if a vagina is not doing that in that moment. Thomas writes about this above. He says a barren woman would be a "case in point." A man is not a woman, barren or otherwise. A barren woman is still a woman. All her parts, by their nature, are aimed at her creating life in her womb. As such, to ejaculate into a woman who is barren would not be unnatural in the appropriate sense, and it would accordingly be completely moral.

Please keep in mind this does not mean that when a couple has sex, the only way to do so morally would be to intend to create children. This is not the case at all, and natural law would not require such things. All it means it that when a couple (or any person) has sex, they must do so in a way that is not actively contrary to the creation of life. It is only a perversion when it is contrary. If a man thinks his wife looks ravishing in her new lingerie, and he can't hardly contain himself, he does nothing immoral having sex with her, even if he's not thinking about children at all. In fact, I hope he's really only thinking about how beautiful his wife is in that moment! (I envy him!) This, incidentally, is the justification for the enormously controversial Natural Family Planning, which, if understood in its proper philosophical context, isn't really controversial at all. (I'll do a lengthier post on NFP later on; this one is getting too long as it is.) Similarly, even if the homosexual does want to create life by ejaculating into his partner's anus, the anus, by its very nature is not aimed at the creation of life. As such, it would count as immoral.

I think this is a decent stopping point. There's a lot going on here, and there's a lot to tease out. All I wanted to do was get the basic formulation up and out of the way before I go into some of the nuances. I think it's a vital part of the blog in general. I want to emphasize that this does not represent the whole of sexual morality. It is merely the most important starting place. There are concepts of virtue and other aspects of human life that are absolutely essential to understanding what human sexuality is and how it should work. This is just the groundwork, the stuff that gave the Western world (and the Church) its baseline. Anyway, I'll talk with you all soon. I'm gonna be late for class!


  1. One objection that sometimes comes up when I argue along these lines is "Oh, you know you're just cribbing off of Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene'. In your view, male-female sex is good because it contributes to the propagation of the species, whereas homosexual sex would be bad. But since we're rational human beings, we can rise above such oppressive biological determinism and do what makes us happy."

    My response in these instances is usually to bring things back to triangularity, the essence of an eye, etc. But I think that for a lot of people there's an emotional/mental gap between recognizing that a penis is "for" reproduction, and that a penis is "good" in some sense when it conforms to its purpose, vs. disregarding utilitarian concerns entirely.

    In short, a lot of people want to mix standards: they might agree that something is "good" in some abstract non-morally binding sense, but they also want to be free to overrule that standard for their own purposes when they perceive some other good as greater.

    Thoughts? I'm not sure how well I'm articulating my point.

    1. I think you're identifying two things here. One, people think that goodness and Moral goodness are different things. That is, that there's good examples of things and then there's Moral goodness, which is special and somehow different. Traditional morality of course completely rejects this, for reasons I hope I've shown. It says that morality is special in that it involves rational agents making choices to be good/not be good, but "good" in this formulation is the same good that is inherent in the things when one says "that is a good example of an eye."

      It's merely a matter of comparing an individual thing to the essence of that thing. In other words, it can be illustrated in a formulation like this: "a good lion hunts, kills, protects; what does a good human do?" Determining what a Human is is what's most vital in answering the question. You are correct in identifying a strange phenomenon in which people say, "well, that's a totally different question!" Traditional morality denies this. Or, it says that you can't even Begin to answer the question (or any question about morality) unless you first determine the nature of human beings. Most people understand this already. They know that if God came down and said "THE ONLY MORAL ACT THAT EXISTS IS WALKING IN A CIRCLE 24 HOURS A DAY. YOU ARE BEING IMMORAL EVERY TIME YOU DO NOT" it would be ridiculous. They would say, "well, Why is that immoral? What does that have to do with being a good human?" In other words, the already understand that morality is tied to goodness, which is merely an objective analysis of the living thing in question.

      I think this actually comes from a misunderstanding of metaphysics in general mixed with a modern notion of "sin." It assumes that Value is created from outside of the thing. The Dawkins sort of comeback you supplied there effectively denies the concept of essence. In that construct, "man" and "woman" don't have any objective meaning; they are just descriptions. It is an implicit denial that goodness and badness are built into the things. This allows the person making the argument to place his own sense of goodness (or appeal to another sense, like God or the Bible or something) Above this inherent goodness ("happiness" (which is rarely defined and is limited, arbitrarily, by the standard "so long as you don't hurt anyone else") here).

      (Incidentally, though I know you're not making the argument, I did not say that male-female sex is good because it contributes to the propagation of the species. This sort of begs the question. I said that it was good in that it fulfills the natural final cause of the sexual act; it orients the human closer to the goodness that is defined by the thing that he is.)

      The other thing you're Kind of identifying is a sort of "why be moral?" response. This is a more complex question that probably deserves its own post. All I was trying to do here was identify why certain acts like homosexual sex, contraception, masturbation, etc. are threshold immoral.

  2. I would wager that most objections to this perspective will come from the consequentialist camp, as they so often do. For the consequentialist, it makes no difference how the sex act takes place if the outcome is the same.

    It might also be worthwhile to take into consideration how intent factors into sexual morality. For instance, man have difficulty understanding how a husband and wife having non-contraceptive sex at a specific point in order to intentionally avoid conception is morally distinct from the married couple who uses contraception with the same objective. The best thought I have seen on this is Anscombe:

  3. I think it's important to remember that there's nothing inherently wrong with not wanting children at a particular time, or in wanting fewer children for financial reasons, etc. It can become immoral if it deepens into an anti-child mentality, but it's not inherently wrong.

    What matters is what one is willing to do to achieve this goal. Temporary restraint (NFP) keeps the integrity of the sex act intact, and so is okay. Using contraception perverts the act by splitting the unitive from the procreative. It is the perversion itself that is wrong, not the ultimate goal.

    The analogy that Feser draws is that NFP is comparable to dieting, while contraception is comparable to bulimia. NFP and dieting are both exercises in temporary restraint, and keep the process (sex, digestion) intact. Contraception and bulimia are both intentional attempts to pervert the process in order to neutralize the primary purpose of the act (reproduction, nourishment). One might draw a similar comparison to remaining silent vs. lying.

  4. I look forward to your post on NFP. I admit that I struggle mightily with the purported morality of NFP. I instinctually feel that NFP is an end-run around the natural end of sex (procreation).

    I think it's much more clear if we can leave the 19th and 20th century behind and go much father back in history. As you rightly pointed out above, barrenness is not sinful, it simply is. We say the same about homosexuality today with the distinction that the condition is not sinful it is the perverted sexual behavior that may result from it that is sinful.

    Let's go back to our pre-19th century barren woman. In virtually all cases the sterility was not discoverable until after marriage and many years of failure to become pregnant. The vow was made in good faith, the couple intended to have children, but a defect in her organs prevented it. No moral failure, no preverted sexual behavior occurred, and no reason upon which to break the marriage vow. During that same time, I believe it was a common practice for women and men who knew in advance that they could not produce children to not marry. I don't have proof at my fingertips but I sincerely doubt that the Church would have married such persons who were knowingly sterile at the outset. The huge difference between then and now was the lack of medical knowledge that made this foreseeable in all but very rare cases. Those cases probably had other reasons attached as well, such as severe injuries that precluded their marriageability anyway. So it is doubtful that much theological ink had to be spilled on the subject of marriage of known sterile individuals. Whereas, impotent males and women with defective (incompetent) vaginas were discussed. Was it the inability to unite the issue or was it the obvious inabilty to procreate? Barrenness/sterility was hidden, impotence or incompetence was not, so it makes me wonder if either side of the equation were missing would they have been allowed to marry. I know it's taking me a long time to get to my point.

    A second example comes from ancient Judaism and what is still in place today among the Orthodox. Namely the notion of the impurity of the menstrual flow and the need to separate women from men during that time. This really isn't about physical impurity, this is about the woman being known to be infertile during this time and the separation of the sexes prevented any temptation to sexual activity duing her infertile period. In other words, it prevented the man from 'spilling his seed' when reproduction was impossible, thereby preserving and strengthening his potential fertility for the proper time AND preventing the avoidance of pregnancy by anything other than total abstinence. I mention Judaism because it is our religious forbear and much of the moral teaching is common to Christianity as well, and also that much of ancient Jewish Law is known today to have been scientifically sound for good health and human flourishing, despite being couched in religious terms. Makes sense for a scientifically naive society that would have thought notions of bacteria and much of the science behind the laws to be superstitious.

  5. Continued from prior post:
    Both of these traditions, imo, point out the original imperative to use the sex act only for procreation, while still recognizing that many individual acts would not produce a child, which they explained as God's will or as a limited understanding of a natural cyclic pattern to reproduction that was intended to be hidden from them.

    The notion that infertile men and women can knowingly go into a valid marriage is, imo, a decidely modern moral interpetation, as well as the notion that sexual practice (via NFP) can be directed exclusively to the infertile days of a woman's cycle and not be said to pervert the end purpose of intercourse. Don't forget that prior to the mid-19th century the rhythm method was unknown and once 'discovered' was still banned by the Church until the late 1930s. Not coincidentally it was approved reluctantly around the same time Protestants were demanding and getting permission to use contraception. Hmmm. Was that a 'cave-in' to keep Catholics in the pews? Some say yes. I think this modern interpretation is precisely why we have such trouble, even among Catholics, to explain why other forms of contraception are wrong and why we still refuse sacramental marriage to couples who do not want to have children, yet marry surgically sterile couples or older couples without a problem. It smacks of more than a little hypocrisy.

    Going back to the topic of barrenness and homosexuality as lacking in any negative morality, I draw this parallel. Isn't a woman (or man) who knows themselves to be sterile (not a sin in itself) but still engages in sexual intercourse actually perverting the true essence of the sex act if it cannot ever be procreative (the sin)? On one level, is this really morally any different than other sex acts, including sodomy, that cannot ever fufill the procreative end purpose of the act, despite the bits fitting together properly? Can we take out an eyeball, rendering it blind, and pin it to our lapel, and still truthfully tell everyone it's serving the purpose for which it was created?

    I apologize for the length and I'm not intending to hijack the post, only to put out there some thoughts that I hope you might address in your future essay on NFP. This topic and direct abortion (as self-defense) to save the life of the mother when both mother and baby will certainly die are the only two things I differ with the Church about and I struggle with them.

    1. As for the history of the Church, I don't think it's particularly relevant to the philosophical issue at hand. It provides for very helpful guidance in discussing the issues, but it does not necessarily disprove any truth that may be determined at a later time. But addressing it at least briefly, I imagine people wouldn't want to marry barren women in the past for the same reason anyone wouldn't want to marry barren women today. That is, it feels like it would be an uphill struggle since children are such an important part of marriage. I think a lot of men would think "what's the point?" This does Not mean, though, that doing so would be Immoral. Which is all that's at issue.

      Similarly, I don't think the Church caved. I think it's a difficult philosophical issue in general, and while I'm hardly an expert on the history, I imagine it took time to completely understand the moral principles and consequences. The fact that Thomas wrote on these things means that they were in controversy. There's still enormous debates today about what results from the principle of double effect (an even more difficult problem), for example.

      But the whole issue can be addressed in the following paragraph:

      "Going back to the topic of barrenness and homosexuality as lacking in any negative morality, I draw this parallel. Isn't a woman (or man) who knows themselves to be sterile (not a sin in itself) but still engages in sexual intercourse actually perverting the true essence of the sex act if it cannot ever be procreative (the sin)? On one level, is this really morally any different than other sex acts, including sodomy, that cannot ever fufill the procreative end purpose of the act, despite the bits fitting together properly? Can we take out an eyeball, rendering it blind, and pin it to our lapel, and still truthfully tell everyone it's serving the purpose for which it was created?"

      Put simply, your parallel is faulty, and it is the reason you are having so much trouble. As I've tried to emphasize, a barren vagina is Still, by its very nature, a vagina. Just because a vagina happens to not be functioning in that moment because of defect or timing does not make the thing Any less a vagina. Alternatively, an anus is NOT a vagina, ever. It is By Its Nature not pointed at the creation of life. This is not a matter of timing or circumstance. This is just what an anus is. As such, ejaculating into one would count as immoral.

      You cannot, when addressing these issues, think of the state a thing is in a particular moment; you must instead think of what a thing Is by its nature. An infertile vagina is not a different thing than a vagina. It's not like there's such a thing as an "infertile vagina" which counts as a different metaphysical thing than a "fertile vagina." They're the same thing, a vagina, which's final cause is the reception of semen, described at different times. In the same way that a "fetus" isn't a different thing, metaphysically, than a "baby." Just like there's no metaphysical difference between a retarded human and a healthy human. They are all just "human" described at different times and in different circumstances.

      Put simply, if you think that an anus, or a mouth, or a hand, or the Atlantic Ocean are similar to a barren vagina, then you have to step back and reexamine the metaphysics. You're thinking a bit like a consequentialist here. That is, you're saying, "well, the consequence of ejaculating into an anus is no baby, and the consequence of ejaculating into a barren vagina is no baby, so it's the same thing." This is not how natural law works.

    2. Christopher West addresses this question in his book "The Good News About Sex and Marriage", although in a less philosophical way. Here's part of his answer:

      "Q: Isn't that splitting hairs? What's the big difference between sterilizing the act of intercourse yourself and just waiting until it's naturally infertile?

      A: What's the big difference between an abortion and a miscarriage? What's the big difference between suicide and natural death? Like these examples, the difference between sterilizing an act of intercourse yourself and accepting the God-given infertile time is one of cosmic dimensions."

      "Q: Are you saying a couple who needs to avoid pregnancy would have to abstain from sex until menopause in order not to violate their vows?

      A: Let's think it through. Fidelity to the 'I do' of the wedding vows means spouses must never do anything of their own will to sterilize any act of intercourse. Menopause actually gives us a good platform for discussion. If a couple past childbearing years chose to have sex, the lack of subsequent pregnancy would not be because of anything they did to sterilize the act. The lack of pregnancy would be the result of God's choice not to bring a new life into the world, as evidenced by his own design in the way he created the wife.

      Well, it's also the result of God's design that women within their childbearing years are not always fertile. In fact, the large majority of the time, they're infertile...Now let's suppose that on a given day of the wife's cycle they're able to determine that having sex would not result in pregnancy. Would they be doing anything wrong if they chose to have sex then? If pregnancy did not result, would it be because they sterilized the act, or would it be because God chose not to bring a new life into the world as evidenced by the way he designed the wife's body?...The fact that pregnancy doesn't result from these acts of intercourse is God's doing, not theirs."

      Granted, all of that is from a theological framework and not a philosophical framework, but I think the same reasoning applies. Under a theological understanding, NFP is okay because God clearly designed these infertile periods into the cycle (it's not like God made a mistake that we're exploiting), and it's not sinful to simply cooperate with God's design. Under a philosophical understanding, it is in the NATURE of a female reproductive system to be fertile at some times and not others, and so it is not going against natural law to only have sex when the un-altered nature of the sex act happens to align with you and your spouse's other life goals.

      In other words, how can NFP be a perversion of natural law when it is already in the very nature of sex to be fertile during certain periods and not during others? Periodic infertility is built in.

    3. Two more things, Anonymous.

      1. The Church says that it is okay for women to get abortions to save their own lives, provided that certain conditions are met. Due to the principle of double effect, it gets a bit technical as to what exact procedures to accomplish this are allowed, but generally speaking it is the 1 situation in which the Church says that it is okay. As far as the "health" of the mother goes, I know the Church usually opposes legislation containing such language because it's usually legally interpreted to include mental health and so abortionists can pretty much have free rein ("She needs an abortion because otherwise she'll get really stressed out"), but I'm not sure what their position is regarding serious physical harm. After all, if you killed someone who you knew was only going to chop off your leg (but you would live), that would be morally okay.

      2. I think the example of the eyeball is a good one. It is in the nature of the eye to see, but it is also in the nature of the eye to not always be able to see (as we have eyelids). So it is okay to knowingly "take advantage" of this built-in mechanism and use it to achieve our goal of getting sleep. In both this case and NFP, we are simply using a built-in mechanism in which the normal purpose of the organ is already not being fulfilled.

  6. Joe, thanks for your reply. I look forward to more on this topic. It will be challenging for me to look at this philosophically rather than from a practical biological basis (I’m in healthcare). I’m not ready to discount historical practice and Church teaching on this topic, however, as Truths are eternal. I'm not sure yet if cyclic intercourse is an acceptable evolution from improved biological understanding or a wholesale change.

    John said: If pregnancy did not result, would it be because they sterilized the act, or would it be because God chose not to bring a new life into the world as evidenced by the way he designed the wife's body?...The fact that pregnancy doesn't result from these acts of intercourse is God's doing, not theirs."

    Thank you for your reply but I can't agree with your statement, because in effect, yes the couple did choose to render their 'act' and the husband’s sperm ‘sterile’ by selecting an infertile day, especially if all the days they choose are infertile and all the days they avoid are the fertile ones. Much the same way a choice of a fertile day renders the act fertile and avoidance of all infertile days, so as not to weaken the sperm count, is a choice for fertility. The lack of a pregnancy wasn't really God's doing in the usual sense of putting the outcome in His hands. It was a natural and predictable result of a choice the spouses made.(I'll revisit that choice in a minute.) Leaving it to God’s doing would be more along the lines of being completely spontaneous in lovemaking and ignoring the calendar.

    Everyone denies NFP is contraception but I don't see how the contraceptive (meaning the basic definition of the word) intent of the spouses can be ignored here. The Church teaching on NFP is that it's only supposed to be used for grave reasons and not indefinitely. That's a pretty remarkable exception when you examine it. The qualifications make it sound like it's only a 'little bit' OK, and only if it's for a little while and for a really good reason. In other words it's not always and everywhere OK to take control of (make choices about) the fertility of your sex life, just sometimes. Why is that, unless it's because NFP is actually contravening the end purpose of intercourse? And if the choice to use NFP is OK sometimes, why not all the time? The whole NFP-is-sometimes-OK rationale seems to me to be a pretty radical departure from the nature of most Catholic moral teaching which is usually pretty absolute.

    I'm not really disagreeing with what may be your underlying philosophy, but I don't think the example you chose works to explain it well. And if I am looking at this consequentially as Joe suggests, then it's probably not a good strategy for trying to explain why NFP isn't contraception to people like me.

    Re: abortion. I'm aware of the teaching. I am talking about direct abortion (not allowed) to save the LIFE of the mother when, and only when, the continued pregnancy will, with certainty, cause the mother to die before the baby has any hope of being viable outside the womb. In other words, BOTH will die when perhaps only one NEED die, that being the child whose death is already certain regardless of the action taken. I'm not referring to unintended abortion (fetus is attached to diseased tissue which is removed) which I know is allowed.

    1. "The qualifications make it sound like it's only a 'little bit' OK, and only if it's for a little while and for a really good reason. In other words it's not always and everywhere OK to take control of (make choices about) the fertility of your sex life, just sometimes. Why is that, unless it's because NFP is actually contravening the end purpose of intercourse? And if the choice to use NFP is OK sometimes, why not all the time? The whole NFP-is-sometimes-OK rationale seems to me to be a pretty radical departure from the nature of most Catholic moral teaching which is usually pretty absolute."

      Incorrect analysis. It is wrong because the marriage as a whole is supposed to produce children, not because the actions are immoral in themselves/not because MFP itself actually contravenes the end purpose of intercourse. For example, it's okay for couples to abstain from sex for certain periods of time, but to do it for the whole marriage would be wrong. It's not the act of abstaining from sex that is morally impermissible (it would not, in itself, violate the natural law to not have sex), it's the duration, the overall structure. This is an absolute rule, completely in line with Catholic principles.

      A marriage has to have sex; how much is a matter of prudence, but it has a certain amount, no matter what. Otherwise, it wouldn't Be a marriage. Similarly, a marriage has to have children. (Assuming the couple is capable.) You can avoid having children (by abstaining) for certain periods of time (out of serious need), but you cannot do so indefinitely. This is also a matter of prudence, but the actual act of abstaining, of going to take a cold shower instead of having sex, would not violate natural law. In other words, using NFP for extended periods of time violates the overall structure of marriage, not the sexual act. Artificial contraception, the pull-out method, etc. violate the actual sexual act.

    2. I think you actually make my point although I may not have made it clear :) My point was abstinence vs infertile sex. They are radically different things and I believe the rhythm method was an accomodation to secular pressure that ended up changing theology and confusing Catholic morality.

      Where pregnancy (aside from total abstinence) had pretty much been in God's hands before and widely accepted as such, RM opened the door to putting the control in the hands of the spouses. Sex without pregnancy was endorsed by the Church! Once that door was opened there was no getting the horse back in the barn as better and better contraception came on the scene. I am of the opinion that the Church, in changing it's age old teaching to make an accomodation to secular culture, created the contraception backlash among the faithful.

    3. I don't think I said what you think I said. I didn't make your point; I completely disagreed with your point. The Church has always endorsed sex when pregnancy may not result (because of the state of the woman, whether she be barren or just infertile.) This was a case in point for Thomas. As I've already explained, there is nothing in natural law that requires spouses to only have sex when the wife is fertile. At this point, I think you are willfully ignoring these explanations.

      (I just noticed; I wish I could change "MFP" to "NFP" up there. But I don't want to accidentally delete your post in the process, so it stays!)

    4. I may be wrong but I assure you it's not willfull. This is a topic that I have struggled to understand for years. I suspect it may be due to consequentialism as you mentioned earlier. I think my healthcare and quality improvement background with it's heavy focus on outcomes is the influence. I'll need to do more reading on that topic.

      For now, however, I continue to hold that the Church's position has not been consistent - it's Thomistic philosophy may have been but not it's practical position. Perhaps that was only due to poor scientific knowledge.

  7. I wanted to give a shout out to the great picture that accompanies this post. I love the the play on words between "perverted faculty" and "lecherous professor."

  8. i am curious why sexual gratification couldnt also be considered an end in itself. that is, couldnt sexual organs be aimed at pleasure coincidentally with procreation?

    1. I think the proper response would be that pleasure is a secondary end of sex. It's similar to how eating is pleasurable, but the pleasure of eating is subordinate to the overall end of nourishing our bodies.

      There's nothing wrong with enjoying sex and not thinking about its reproductive aspect at the time. Issues start to arise when you go against the primary end for the sake of the lesser.

  9. Great post. Thanks for writing!

  10. I don't think the perverted faculty argument works when applied to the sexual organs, but does work when applied to the sexual act. It appears this is closer to what Thomas had in mind when he wrote about the "emission of semen". More recent natural law theorists seem to consider the sexual act in totality.

    I'll admit it up front that I've had a lot, a lot of trouble with the PFA. It seems clear as day at times and downright fallacious other days. Though a large part of the problem is that most of us have not enjoyed a rigorous education in classical logic and natural philosophy before proceeding to "do ethics".

    At any rate, thanks for this series of posts.

  11. Joe. Long time no write. I'm just writing to thank you again for creating this blog, it's been an invaluable resource for me on this issue especially in times like this. I hope you and yours are well. God bless.