Thursday, February 17, 2011

Moral Theology? Bah! Humbug!

Yesterday I posted what ended up being my most controversial post in two years on Facebook. It was simply a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny [slander], good or just. The end does not justify the means” (CCC 1753).

In less than 24 hours, this post has generated 138 comments. Some of them from conservative Catholics who are angry at what the Church teaches.

Now, seeing that, and knowing what a firestorm we're in on the internet over this issue, I would like to summarize a few things and then make a new point.

The issue has arisen over the undercover video sting techniques of James O'Keefe and Lila Rose, aimed at exposing Planned Parenthood for the monsters they are. This is a highly charged issue, as it appears to many people that Lila and James are being attacked or judged; it appears as if the voices of caution are standing in the way of the laudable goal of exposing Planned Parenthood; and it appears that the Catholic Church must be wrong in its moral teachings.

In fact, a number of typical defenses have arisen from those who are seeking to answer the moral theologians.

1. The consequentialist defense. The end justifies the means, so whatever means these journalists using are good, since their goal is good. (Answer: no, the Church is very clear that the end can never justify the means).

2. The warfare defense: all's fair in love and war and this is war; or at least this is a situation akin to war. (Answer: all is not fair in love and war; neither doing evil nor using bad means for a good end is justified in war; though there may be something more to this defense if pursued).

3. The double effect defense. The journalists are not intending to deceive. The deception is a side-effect of what they're doing. (Answer: on the surface this doesn't hold water, but again there may be more to this line of arguing).

4. The ad hominem defense: you are a Lila hater and a judgmental bigot. (Answer: I know James O'Keefe and I admire the intentions of both him and Lila Rose. But if they're doing wrong, we must be clear about that.)

5. The Protestant defense: "we are not bound by what the Catechism teaches" or "the Catechism is not magisterial, or at least it is only provisionally so, thus it may be ignored". (Answer: there are a LOT of Protestants in the closet in conservative Catholic circles.)

6. The equivocation defense: equivocaton is not exactly virtuous, therefore direct lying is good. (Answer: I personally say that equivocation is less than virtuous because it is close to lying. It is the taint of falsehood that makes equivocation smell bad. If equivocation is bad, it's because lying is worse.)

7. The nature of the act defense: what the journalists in these cases do is not lying. (Answer: this is possibly true and the best defense of the lot, though I'm quite skeptical.)

8. The anti-intellectual defense: those examining this issue from the perspective of moral theology are Pharisees - splitting hairs, wringing their hands, counting angels on the head of a pin, and mentally fiddling while Rome is burning and children are dying. (Answer: see below.)

To answer number eight, I sent this to a friend of mine who made that objection (an admirable objection, as it says, "This is stupid. Get off your butt and save babies.")


My friend,

Here's why it's not Pharisaical to split hairs on this issue.

To liberal dissenting Catholics, common sense tells them that masturbation does no harm; pornography is victimless; contraception is a private matter, and so forth. They see NFP as a Pharisaical way around the prohibition on artificial contraception. They see no evils in any of these below the waist activities. And indeed, without the mind of the Church, a person infused with the secular spirit would see no evils in these activities. How bizarre and over-reaching St. Thomas Aquinas' conclusion must be that fornication is less evil than masturbation, for at least fornication is not a perversion of nature. This is a shocking thing to hear. "Do you mean if I have sex with a woman, it's less wrong then jerking off!" - well, according to Aquinas, yes, it's not as wrong. Is this because Aquninas is a hair splitting Pharisee? No, it's because he's thinking with the mind of the Church, and he is seeing Sex in its most broad context, one that encompases the law of love and the law of nature. Once you try to think with the mind of the Church, you see that individual situations are being fretted over in order to place them in the larger context.

I myself fretted over the birth control issue once I became Catholic, and was very tempted to pull an Americanist "the Church must be wrong here". Why would NFP be allowable but artificial contraception not? We aren't Christian Scientists, or tree huggers. What makes "natural" contraception different from "artifcial" contraception? Is the intent and the act not the same?

Finally it dawned on me that Natural Family Planning is "periodic continence". In other words, the Church says, "If you don't want babies, don't have sex." And this applies to the few days per month when a woman is fertile. Continence is allowed; it may even be a virtue at times, and thus it is the only form of contraception allowable, not because it's "natural", but because it's not really contraception. It's abstinence.

This is why focusing on this issue and getting the moral theology right is crucial. It is not hair-splitting. What is the nature of the act? Deacon Jim Russell has just written to me saying that in some situations a person can have no expectation of being told the truth - this applies to games, theatrics, warfare, and, he says, businesses that are built upon lies and murder. This is an interesting point and worthy of further pursuit.

You see I'm not saying that we need to wring our hands. We need to wring our minds and understand what it is we're doing or condoning. This is the point, not the angels on the head of a pin, but the pinning down of many heads so that we begin to think like angels.

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